§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Cope.]
§ 4 pm
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. William Whitelaw)
The parliamentary Boundary Commissions are the subject of this afternoon's debate. Although the debate has been prompted by the recent recommendations which the four commissions have made for constituencies in the United Kingdom, those recommendations have already been or will shortly be the subject of detailed debate in the House. I do not therefore propose to discuss them on this occasion. Instead I propose to stand back and look at the commissions from a somewhat longer historical perspective.
As a background, I should like to begin by reminding the House first of the constitution of the four Boundary Commissions. The four permanent Boundary Commissions for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland were established by the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1944. The deputy chairman of each commission is a High Court judge appointed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor or, as the case may be, the Lord President of the Court of Session or the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland. There are two other members. In the English commission one is appointed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environemt and the other by me. In the Welsh commission one is appointed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and the other by me. Appointments to the Scottish and Northern Ireland commissions are made by the Secretaries of State concerned. In 1958 the Home Secretary, Mr. R. A. Butler, as he then was, gave the House an assurance that the ministerial appointments should in each case be made in agreement with the other political parties, and this assurance has been upheld by successive Governments ever since. Only one of the three ministerial appointments to the English commission, which is the one I know most about, has been made since the Government took office, but we consulted the Opposition about that appointment as they consulted us about the appointments they made in the past.
Apart from the members of each commission there are two assessors, the Registrar General for the relevant part of the United Kingdom and the Director General of the ordnance survey. The statutory framework for the redistribution of seats and the procedures laid down for the Boundary Commissions to perform their task are the result of a century or so's experience and are in virtually all respects—this is important—the product of all-party agreement. Your ex-officio chairmanship, Mr. Speaker, illustrates the complete political impartiality of the commission's work.
Before looking at the way in which the commissions operate I think we need to understand the historical processes which led to the present position.
During the 19th century, the practice was for periodic redistribution of seats to be proposed by the Government of the day. The great Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867 and Mr. Gladstone's redistribution Act of 1884 each effected a major change in the division of the electoral map, and each was the source of acute political controversy. By the time, at the beginning of the present century, that 142 Parliament came to accept the principle that constituencies should so far as possible be of equal size, it had become clear that proposals for new boundaries should come from a more independent source. An all-party conference was set up under Mr. Speaker's chairmanship in 1917. It recommended that in future the distribution of seats should be based on the population of each constituency, and the Representation of the People Act 1918 gave effect to this recommendation by adopting the proposals for new boundaries of an independent Boundary Commission.
Both in 1918 and in 1948, when Parliament once again addressed itself to the redistribution of seats, the change was made through primary legislation, in the form of a schedule to Bills concerned with many other aspects of electoral law. This procedure enabled Parliament to scrutinise the commission's recommendations in considerable detail and, if necessary, to debate and vote on particular recommendations in isolation from the whole. But from other points of view the procedure had serious disadvantages. If the principle of a redistribution of seats at regular intervals were accepted, successive Governments would be committed to periodic redistribution Bills, which, as constitutional measures, could be expected to consume a great deal of parliamentary time. Furthermore, implementation through an Act of Parliament brought the recommendations of an impartial commission right into the political arena. There was always the chance that Parliament might decide to alter the commission's proposals to suit, not the electorate, but party advantage.
The problem was to devise a procedure which allowed a democratically elected Parliament to retain the ultimate control of the redistribution of seats without overwhelming the House with detail or endangering the independence of the Boundary Commission's recommendations. That problem was solved by Mr. Speaker's Conference of 1944, in which all the parties agreed that after an initial redistribution through statute effect should be given to periodic boundary changes through an order presented in draft to Parliament by the Home Secretary of the day and approved by the affirmative resolution of each House.
The Speaker's Conference recommendations were implemented in the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1944. The Act was subsequently amended and then consolidated in the 1949 Act, which, with further modifications made in 1958, provides the statutory framework within which the commissions still operate. This legislation requires the commissions to submit their proposals for the redistribution of seats every 10 to 15 years, lays down the rules with which the commissions are required to comply and describes the procedures to be followed by the commissions in formulating their recommendations.
Between 1832 and 1948 seats were redistributed every 30 years or so. The longer the interval, the more radical the changes needed to arrive at a more equitable redistribution. By the 1940s there was a feeling in all parts of the House that boundary changes ought to be put on both a more regular and a more frequent basis. The 1944 Speaker's Conference accordingly recommended that the permanent Boundary Commissions should be required to submit their reports every three to seven years, thus ensuring that boundaries kept pace quite closely with population movements and that changes should on average be made once during the lifetime of each Parliament.
143 The 1954 changes were the first and only boundaries introduced under this procedure. Although, compared with the 1948 redistribution, the changes effected in 1954 were only minor, this made them no less controversial. If the object of the 1944 Act had been to take the redistribution of seats outside the area of political dispute, the objective was clearly not achieved. When the 1954 order was debated, hon. Members put much emphasis on the deleterious effect on constituency life of too, frequent boundary changes, and it was agreed that changes should be made less often than the 1944 Speaker's Conference had proposed. Accordingly, the 1958 Act extended the interval between reviews to the present 10 to 15 years.
§ Mr. W. Benyon (Buckingham)
Does my right hon. Friend accept that because, according to the report, the period of 10 to 15 years runs from the date of the report on the last general review, the longer the delay in submitting each report the longer the whole process is delayed?
§ Mr. Whitelaw
That is perfectly true and I know that my hon. Friend has had experience of that. On the other hand, after 1954 Parliament decided that too frequent boundary changes caused serious problems for constituency life. Every effort has been made to achieve a balance. Sometimes, as in my hon. Friend's case, it has not proved entirely satisfactory, but I shall return to that aspect later.
The 1958 Act extended the interval between reviews to the present 10 to 15 years, and the commissions submitted their second periodical report in 1969. The Northern Ireland commission submitted its third periodical report last year and the three other commissions submitted theirs earlier this year.
Ten or 15 years between reviews at a time of rapid social change means that each report is sure to contain proposals for major changes in constituency arrangements. Since 1969, we have to remember that the reorganisation of local government 10 years ago makes quite radical changes inevitable. I shall say no more about that, however, as we shall have a full opportunity to debate it when we discuss the English commission's recommendations tomorrow.
The rules set out in the second schedule to the 1949 Act, as amended, lay down how the commissions should set about their task. I think that it is fair to say that it is this aspect of the redistribution arrangements which has caused Parliament the most difficulty in recent years, because it is here that a balance has to be struck between the need to ensure equality of representation and the need to respect natural communities.
§ Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)
Before going further into those details, does my right hon. Friend accept that there is a major problem in dealing with new reports when they have to put before Parliament recommendations based on electorates that are so far out of date? The present report for England is based on the electorate of 1976. Those recommendations will still operate in 1992, so they will be based on an electorate 15 to 17 years out of date. In considering any alteration, would it not be sensible to try to ensure that the electorates used are far more up to date at the date on which the Boundary Commission report is actually accepted?
§ Mr. Whitelaw
I am coming to that, but it impinges on what Parliament decided in the past. Parliament can, 144 of course, decide to make changes. When Parliament decided to have more frequent changes it disliked the result of that decision very much. It therefore went back on it. Parliament must make up its mind. If it does not want more frequent changes, some of the problems to which my hon. Friend refers will arise. I shall, however, return to that later.
We still make a distinction in this House between borough constituencies and county constituencies. Although successive Representation of the People Acts have smoothed away most of the differences, the distinction reminds us that at one time it was generally believed that quite different rules, and a quite different franchise, should govern elections in rural and urban constituencies. Implicit in any system of redistributing seats, however, is the idea that a vote should be worth just as much in one sort of constituency as in another, and each redistribution has tended to iron out the differences between urban seats and rural seats.
At the same time, we have never entirely lost hold of the idea that constituency boundaries should so far as possible reflect those of natural communities. In entrusting an independent commission with the task of drawing up new boundaries, Parliament has repeatedly taken steps to ensure that fair and equal representation is considered alongside local ties. That has been a decision of Parliament.
When, in 1917, the Speaker's Conference first laid down rules for ensuring a full mathematical equality of constituency representation, it was quickly realised that strict rules made the system inoperable and Parliament had to relax them. It was decided that a variation of 30 per cent. below and 70 per cent. above the electoral quota was acceptable. Much the same thing happened when Parliament returned to the problem 30 years later. Under the recommendation of the 1944 Speaker's Conference and the ensuing House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act it was proposed that a much smaller 25 per cent. tolerance would be the maximum acceptable. In 1946, however, the then Home Secretary, Mr. Chuter Ede, had to tell the House that the 25 per cent. formula had forced the commissions to recommend the complete dismemberment of many united communities, and the idea of attempting to enforce strict mathematical equality between evenly distributed broad limits was abandoned.
Even so, the 1954 boundary changes highlighted some remaining difficulties in the redistribution rules In their amended form, the rules contained a presumption that the most important feature of redistribution was adherence to the electoral quota. In the words of Mr. R. A. Butler, as he then was, this meant that the commissions wereobliged, in many cases, to recommend changes which would produce greater mathematical equality between constituencies even though the electorates of the existing constituencies …are not abnormal."—[Official Report, 11 February 1958; Vol. 582, c. 230.]The rigid application of the electoral quota in 1954 and the unnecessary changes that it produced caused protests from all quarters of the House. As a result, and following a suggestion of the Boundary Commission itself, an additional rule was added in 1958 requiring the commissionsto take account … of the inconveniences attendant on alterations of constituencies … and of any local ties which would be broken by such alterations".Finally, the English commission was given even more freedom to balance these conflicting principles when the 145 opportunity was taken in the Local Government Act 1972 to reduce the number of local government boundaries that the commission was in general prevented from crossing.
I turn now to the way in which the commissions are required to go about their work of drawing up proposals for new constituencies.
§ Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)
I hope I am not anticipating what my right hon. Friend is going to say but on quotas there is a very serious issue: whether the second schedule of the 1949 Act is still applicable and the extent to which the commission should work to a figure of 65,700 electors. Is a constituency of this size still appropriate, given the view of many people that there are perhaps already too many Members and too many constituencies? Although it is the law, and none of us denies that, would my right hon. Friend care to share with us his views on whether there is a case for making constituencies much larger?
§ Mr. Whitelaw
I should be very unwise—even more unwise perhaps than I normally am—if I were to reply to such a proposal. There are many arguments and Parliament must decide what it wants. It would be unwise for the Home Secretary of the day to prescribe a situation in which a great many Members would have no seat at the time of a subsequent general election. I do not wish to cast myself in that role. It is a matter entirely for Parliament itself to decide. If in its wisdom Parliament were to decide it wanted many fewer Members, it could perfectly well do so in future. I can only hazard a guess—I doubt that I shall be here to see it, because it will be a long time in the future—that Parliament will not come to that conclusion. However, it is a matter for Parliament.
The commissions have power to base their proposals only on the electorate during the year—a point raised by one of my hon. Friends—in which they began their reviews; otherwise the commissions would always be waiting for, or pressed to wait for, more up-to-date electoral figures and would never complete their work. This makes it important that effect should be given to their proposals not too many years after the reviews begin. At the same time, the commissions need to ensure that during the preparation of their proposals full account is taken of local feelings and local knowledge.
An essential feature of the 1944 Act was the commissions' power to hold local inquiries at which provisional proposals could be discussed and representations made before final recommendations were made. At the time of the 1954 changes there was a feeling that this power had been insufficiently used, and Parliament decided in 1958 that during future reviews the commissions should be obliged to hold a local inquiry if they received objections from any local authority, or at least 100 electors, affected by their provisional recommendations. The effect of this measure can be judged by comparing the number of local inquiries held during the English commission's first review with those held during their third. Before the 1954 changes there had been seven local inquiries; in the most recent round there were 95. If the commissions decide to revise their proposals in the light of a local inquiry, representations must again be invited on their revised recommendations, and so on until the commissions decide not to alter their last published recommendations.
146 I do not think there can be any doubt that the requirement to hold local inquiries has immensely strengthened the redistribution process. It brings the commissions right down into the reality of local issues and local ties. As the English commission says in its most recent report, many representations are, of course, politically motivated, designed to give advantage to one party or another; and the commission quite properly emphasises thatthis has never been a permissible consideration".Similarly, the volume of representations made does not necessarily mean that a commission's proposals are ill-conceived or universally repugnant to local opinion. As the English commission again observes:it is apparent that people show greater willingness to make representations opposing proposals than they do supporting proposals.No one who has been a Member of this House for any length of time will doubt the wisdom of that remark. Often it is only after provisional proposals have been revised that representations supporting them are received for the first time.
As a background to this debate, I have given the House an outline of the commissions' task and have attempted to explain how Parliament came to decide that things should be as they are. I felt that that was a duty that I, as the Home Secretary of the day, owed the House.
At the beginning of my speech I emphasised the way our system of redistributing seats has evolved over the years against the background—I repeat it now—of all-party agreement. The nature of the agreement is roughly this. It is vital that Parliament should retain overall control of the machinery. As Mr. Herbert Morrison said when, as Home Secretary, he was introducing the provisions of the 1944 Act:at all stages of the procedure Parliament must be on top … Parliament will settle the principles, Parliament will deal with the recommendations of the Boundary Commissioners … and at no stage will there be any situation which is not entirely under Parliamentary control."—[Official Report, 10 October 1944; Vol. 403, c. 1614.]At the same time Parliament has decided to put a certain distance between itself and the boundary changes themselves. Parliament has given the task to the Boundary Commission, Parliament has established the rules under which the commissions operate and, by deciding that changes should be implemented through Order in Council, Parliament has clearly said that it is not its business to interfere with the detail of the recommendations duly put forward under the statutory rules. I hope that this is something we shall all bear in mind tomorrow when we come to the English Commission's recommendations themselves.
§ Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)
A Boundary Commission debate offers the House an almost irresistible temptation to behave and speak with a wholly bogus and equally incredible air of purity and objectivity. If we are to have a serious debate on Boundary Commissions, their history and their work, I believe we ought all to begin with an admission. Most politicians' enthusiasm for or antipathy towards a Boundary Commission report is at least influenced by the effect that that report has on the prospects of his or her party. I cannot bring myself, at the beginning of this debate, to pretend anything different. I therefore declare an appropriate interest.
147 I have never believed that the report that we are discussing in general terms today and will discuss in detail tomorrow will result in the net loss of seats to my party that some newspapers have suggested. But I do not pretend other than it swings the balance—I make no accusations, it is a matter of statistics—in the direction of the Conservative party. I look upon its proposals therefore with something less than affection. It is for exactly the same reason that the Home Secretary has viewed the recommendations with such enthusiasm. That is why he allotted extra staff to the preparatory work.
§ Mr. Whitelaw
Let me say that I do not view the proposals with enthusiasm. Certainly my speech was not intended to convey that impression.
§ Mr. Hattersley
I assure the Home Secretary that his speech conveyed no impression whatsoever. There is absolute unanimity about that.
The enthusiasm to which I referred is demonstrated by the allocation of extra staff to the preparatory work in the right hon. Gentleman's Department, his encouragement to the commission to surge ahead, his anticipation of the formal receipt of the report, his ignoring of the court's enjoinder and his decision to send the report to the printers before he had lawfully received it and before the House of Lords had decided whether it was right for him to receive it. I make no allegations or accusations about the Home Secretary. He and I are joined by the mutual attitude of politicians in that we are inclined to look at the Boundary Commission's reports according to whether in our judgment they assist or work to the detriment of our parties. That is our partisan reaction. It is a natural and perhaps proper reaction. I make that admission at once because I believe that if the debate is to have any purpose, it should be honest and serious. It cannot be serious unless it is honest. The honest point is the political bias of all of us as we discuss the report.
Notwithstanding that political bias, objective things ought to be said about the way in which the Boundary Commission operates, its procedures and therefore the conclusions that will be debated in detail by the House tomorrow. Those are criticisms not of the Boundary Commission, certainly not of its individual members, but of the procedures. They are criticisms of procedures which, if the Home Secretary wants a further admission from me, I accept at once have been instituted and operated by successive Governments. I understand that the purpose of today's debate is to look at the merits of the proposals that are now the guiding principles of the Boundary Commission.
The principal task of the Boundary Commission is to equalise the size of constituencies or, to be more precise, to equalise the size of the electorates within constituencies. That is an essential requirement of our form of democracy, because if there is a gross discrepancy between the size of one constituency and another, individual votes do not have equal importance. We all agree that it was wrong for 10 men to elect a Member of Parliament in the 19th century in one constituency when it took 2,000 men to elect a Member of Parliament in another. The unacceptability of that inequity in a less extreme form applies today in the 20th century if one constituency has 57,995 electors, while another, within a mile of its boundaries, has 84,401 electors. That is the case with Finchley and Wood Green, two adjacent seats, one of which, by coincidence is 148 represented by the Prime Minister and has a conveniently small electorate. Within a mile of that constituency there is a parliamentary division with voters who number almost 30 per cent. more than in the Finchley division. I cannot justify that in terms of the democracy on which our representative Government is based and neither can the rules that govern the behaviour of the Boundary Commission.
Rule 5 of the Boundary Commission is the most important of all the statutory criteria by which the Boundary Commission is governed. It requires the commission to redistribute seats in a way that produces constituencies of a size that is as close to what is called the electoral quota as possible.
That quota is a pretty inadequate calculation. The rules differ for Scotland and Wales from those for England. That is one of the problems that we have to discuss in the United Kingdom Parliament. For England, the quota is determined by dividing the number of electors on a seven-year-old register by the number of existing constituencies, which is already acknowledged to be wrong and which the Boundary Commission is required to change. The quota of constituency numbers is determined by dividing one admittedly inadequate number into a second inadequate number because it is outdated. As the result of that strange process, the commission came to the conclusion that the figure for the ideal constituency in England, the mean constituency, the magic number, was 65,753.
I say again, out of respect to you, Mr. Speaker, as chairman of the commission and all hon. Members who have served under you, that in coming to that strange calculation the commission was abiding by the requirements laid down by law. However, that is a strange way to begin. The law requires the commission to proceed in a way that many of us regard as equally strange. For England the commission was required to produce constituencies as near to that magic number as possible. That was the aim. I describe it as an aim because as well as aiming at that size of constituency it was required to observe other criteria. I shall describe the other criteria as the commission describes them. It describes one of those criteria in its report as follows:Rule 4 requires that so far as practicable constituencies are to be contained within the areas of counties or London boroughs.Added to that criterion enshrined in the schedule to the 1958 Act there is what has now become a convention, not the law, which also circumscribes the commission's behaviour that wherever possible constituencies shall contain wards that are not divided between one constituency and another. A local government ward shall be wholly and entirely within one constituency.
Every Boundary Commission since the war—I fear it is particularly so with this Boundary Commission—has had great difficulty in deciding the order of precedence that is to be attributed to its conflicting rules, for the hard fact of the matter is that obtaining constituencies of the median or mean size of 65,753 voters, which would give equal weight to every voter in England and therefore produce the democratic outcome that the Act intended, obliges constituencies to go across existing constituency, and county, boundaries. This Boundary Commission was by no means sure, because I fear that the Act does not give it clear advice, whether numbers are more important than boundaries or boundaries more important than numbers. The advice that is at its disposal makes it clear that 149 numbers have a certain primacy and that the aim of 65,000 is the most important objective. However, the rules do not make it anything like clear how important that objective is and whether it must be held paramount when the Boundary Commission comes to its conclusions.
§ Mr. Gary Waller (Brighouse and Spenborough)
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that because of that problem the Boundary Commission considered whether it should cross London borough boundaries, and that the unanimous view of all parties, including the Labour party, was that it should not, although that was the one way in which the disparities about which he spoke could be avoided? As the Labour party took that view, is it not surprising that it should come forward with a different view when that situation could have been avoided previously? Perhaps the timing is significant.
§ Mr. Hattersley
I struggle to avoid those little party points, but as the hon. Gentleman wants to make them, I shall refer to the Yorkshire Labour party, which in the Barnsley, Rotherham, Sheffield and Doncaster area wanted to cross the borough boundaries, but was prevented from doing so. Leeds and Wakefield wanted to cross the borough boundaries and were allowed to do so. It would not be inconsistent with my view of history to suggest that the judgment of the London Labour party was superior to that of Sheffield, Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham Labour party.
The truth is that individual parties, like individual Members of Parliament, will take different views on those matters according to their party allegiance and their judgment of party fortunes. The House should consider today the merits and benefits for genuine democracy. It is my conclusion and the conclusion of my right hon. Friends that the overwhelming merit for genuine democracy is to have constituencies that are as near to the mean size as possible, although that involves crossing county boundaries.
Of course, if the crossing of county borders can be avoided and if wards can be contained entire and intact within constituencies, that is a bonus, but it is nothing like the advantage that is to be obtained from being able to say to every individual voter that his vote is of equal weight to all other votes, whether it is in London, Yorkshire, Birmingham, Devon or any other part of England.
This Boundary Commission has singularly failed to achieve equality of weight or equalisation of numbers. It has strayed more from the mean figure, the figure at which it is bound by law to aim, than any Boundary Commission since the war. That is its right and entitlement under the criteria laid down by the Act, but those of us who want to see the proper balance and weight must regret that the commission has strayed in that way. We must consider how in future Boundary Commissions can be prevented from doing so.
§ Mr. Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)
I have much sympathy with the point the right hon. Gentleman is making. He has talked about having the same number of electors in a constituency, whether it be in Birmingham, Yorkshire or London. Would he extend that to any constituency in England as compared with any constituency in Scotland or Wales? Further, would he not 150 agree on reflection that this Boundary Commission has got nearer to the mean average in more constituencies than any previous Boundary Commission?
§ Mr. Hattersley
No, quite the opposite, in answer to the second question. On the first point, since we are discussing representation in the United Kingdom Parliament, there ought to be an equation if not of numbers then of procedures within the entire United Kingdom. My regret is that that view is not shared by the Boundary Commission, at least in its recommendations that are to be debated tomorrow. For a United Kingdom Parliament the weight of each vote, and therefore the size of each constituency, should be as equal as possible. I admit that that aim cannot be perfectly achieved.
Let me give a further example, one which will no doubt be duplicated, repeated and added to in this debate and in the debate on the report tomorrow. If a psephologist were to drive north up Finchley road, he would find that on his right all the constituencies contained 67,000 or more electors and that on his left all the constituencies contained 60,000 or fewer electors. That is palpable nonsense if we are trying to get equality between the strength of individual votes. It is nonsense that in that area there is a 20 per cent. difference from the average; in some cases there is a 30 per cent. difference from the average and very large discrepancies can be pointed out all over England, and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) will explain, if he catches your eye at the end of the debate, Mr. Speaker, those discrepancies are repeated throughout Scotland as well as in other parts of the United Kingdom.
The desire, the need and the obligation for the Boundary Commission to provide a report that is wholly consistent is enhanced by the inability of the House effectively to change the Boundary Commission's recommendations once they are presented to us. One of the things that I found most wearisome in those newspapers which suggested that objection to the details of the Boundary Commission's recommendations was misplaced because the ultimate judgment resided in the House of Commons was the simple fact that this is not the case.
Let me put it in simple and direct terms. I am greatly satisfied by the proposals made by the Boundary Commission for Birmingham, the city which I represent in part. But I am wholly dissatisfied by the proposals for the city in which I was born and brought up, Sheffield. I have no way of expressing my disapproval of the Sheffield recommendations unless I pretend that I am equally at odds with and against what is proposed for Birmingham.
I am not suggesting that Parliament should be given the opportunity to put forward amendments to individual pages and paragraphs of the report which we shall debate tomorrow. Were that to happen, we would sit through June, July, August and September, with day after day of amendment and debate. But if the House of Commons, as necessity requires, is simply offered a take-it-or-leave-it vote on the recommendations of the Boundary Commission, there is a special obligation on the commission to behave in a way that is consistent for the entire United Kingdom. It is not required under the law to do that. I fear that it has not done so, as my hon. and right hon. Friends will explain when we come to the details tomorrow.
In the general debate I should like to give some examples of what I mean. There are discrepancies in size 151 of 17.22 per cent. above the national average and 6.01 per cent. below the national average in adjoining constituencies. There are discrepancies of 15,278 electors in adjoining constituencies. That should not be acceptable to the House. Nor ought we to accept the discrepancies between England and Wales and the discrepancies in procedures between England and Scotland when the Boundary Commissions undertake their deliberations and prepare their reports. I say again, as I said to the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman), that for the United Kingdom Parliament all constituencies should have the same weight, the same number of electors, the same importance and the same influence; they do not. The differences stem largely from the differences in procedures that were employed as the Boundary Commissions examine different areas. They stem particularly from the different attitudes of the inspectors who examined individual appeals and presided over individual inquiries.
Let me explain what I mean, dealing again with a point I have already made in passing but which I shall now cover in more detail. I make the point again because it demonstrates the total failure of the Boundary Commissions to co-ordinate the response of different inspectors who made judgments on appeals against various decisions. On the Labour side of the House we regard the equating of numbers as far more important than avoiding the crossing of boundaries. From the evidence it seems that some inspectors shared that view but others did not.
In south Yorkshire, Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster were considered individually, and proposed appeals that all south Yorkshire should be considered together, thus equating sizes and numbers, were rendered impossible because individual inspectors were appointed for each of the boroughs and none of the inspectors was able, or prepared, to consider appeals that went outside his terms of reference. However, in west Yorkshire one inspector was appointed for the Leeds and Wakefield inquiry. When the Labour party urged that a boundary should be crossed so as to obtain better numbers, that inspector was prepared to concede the point and a constituency that straddled Leeds and Wakefield was in consequence created. It seems wholly unreasonable that in south Yorkshire one rule should prevail but in west Yorkshire different criteria should be used for the judgment.
§ Mr. Mark Carlisle (Runcorn)
The right hon. Gentleman has made the point again that it is the view of the Labour party that the need to have equality of number is more important than the crossing of county or borough boundaries. When my hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Waller) told him that the Labour party had earlier expressed the opposite view, he said that some Labour parties expressed one view and some another. Perhaps he would look at paragraph 14 of the report, where the Boundary Commission said about constituencies crossing county boundaries:We discussed the situation with the representatives of the political parties. They were of the unanimous opinion that none of the constituencies in London should cross a borough boundary, … they were opposed in all circumstances to the crossing of any county boundary.Does that not mean the Labour party as a whole, rather than any individual branch of it?
§ Mr. Hattersley
My information is that it does not. The right hon. and learned Gentleman must learn, as I 152 have learnt over the last 30 years, that the Labour party is a many-splendoured thing; it will have different attitudes on the matter in different areas.
I believe—I say this with as little as pomposity as I can manage—that our task today is not to worry about whether the London Labour party or the Yorkshire Labour party was right, but to worry about what produces the most democratic result. Even though it may require me to run contrary to the judgment of the London Labour party—this I must say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman who has another party point to make—I believe that equality of numbers is of overwhelming importance.
§ Mr. Mark Carlisle
I am not making a party point. I want to establish the facts. The report refers to meetings with the political parties in general. I understood that to mean that it was the view of the major political parties, on a country basis, that they were opposed to crossing boundaries. Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that I am wrong to read the report in that way and that the Labour party never expressed such views and that they were merely the views of part of the Labour party?
§ Mr. Hattersley
It is my understanding that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is not correct. My judgment is that even were it to be correct, it is not important. There are differences within parties on all these matters. The right hon. and learned Gentleman personifies the differences within his party.
Today's debate, which is not politically polarised and is not leading to a vote, is an attempt to find a more democratic way of running the Boundary Commission. Irrespective of whether I am offending part of the Labour party or even its National Executive, my judgment is that the best way to achieve a democratic solution is to equate the number of constituencies far more rigorously and precisely than they have been equated in the report. Because inspectors were appointed differently and took different views, a different outcome was achieved for areas within comparatively close proximity. Anyone who looks at the way inspectors behaved throughout the country will discover that the variations in result are due largely to the attitude taken by different inspectors and the utter failure of the Boundary Commission to co-ordinate the inspectors' work.
I shall give an example from Birmingham, which is an area where the outcome is wholly to my liking. However, that outcome was produced in the most extraordinary way. The initial report was submitted. It showed evidence that a child had been given a piece of chalk and been invited to scribble on the map of Birmingham. The result was so unsatisfactory to all the participants that some Birmingham politicians sat down and decided that they could produce a redistribution which conformed more with the criteria than the Boundary Commission's initial recommendations.
We appealed to the Boundary Commission. There were a few fringe criticisms. The chairman of the Sutton Coldfield Conservative association said that she would support any proposal that did not call Sutton Coldfield, Sutton Coldfield—Birmingham and would support no proposal that did. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Mr. Bevan) gave evidence and said that his constituency:had been delineated by dikes in the middle ages and ought to be so delineated in the future.153 Putting those criticisms aside, the Boundary Commission accepted entirely a scheme that had been drawn up in a Birmingham front room and which conformed more with the Boundary Commission's regulations than the scheme it had originally submitted.
That is fine for Birmingham. My worry is where the inspector was not so open-minded, flexible and prepared to think again. The House will find during the next two days that example after example will be given of where the first proposal is as with the child with the chalk on the map, as in Birmingham, and the inspector, unlike in Birmingham, not being prepared to accept second thoughts and better solutions provided by others.
The important subject that we should discuss today is how to avoid these inadequacies and what rules we can lay down which do not involve party balance, and which I cannot assail or assess in terms of party balance, but which would avoid the troubles, the suspicions, the uncertainty and the lack of confidence which the Boundary Commission has created.
I offer three or four suggestions as to what should be done. First, the obligation to have a common-sized constituency, as compared and contrasted with the duty not to cross county boundaries or the obligation to achieve an appropriate number compared with the calculation of the number of seats throughout the United Kingdom, should be given a clear priority.
I believe that a new Boundary Commission Act should begin by saying that the first and paramount obligation of the Boundary Commission is to have the numbers as equal as possible. Of course, for Members of Parliament, their agents and parties, there will be some inconvenience, as I once experienced, when one fights a constituency called Sutton Coldfield and discovers that part of it is in the city of Birmingham. That inconvenience was multitudinous and continued for four years. It resulted in the remarkable achievement of my having fought the constituency hard for three years and succeeded in increasing the Conservative majority from 17,000 to 22,000. Similar things will happen to all types of constituencies and Members of Parliament. However, they pale into insignificance compared with the democratic duty to have constituencies of about the same electoral size.
§ Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in Ealing, the commissioner said that he would accept a proposal on the basis of its simplicity rather than on the basis of geographical or community or numerical considerations? Does not that take us into a wholly new and extraordinary area?
§ Mr. Hattersley
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. If I may say so without prejudicing his position, I am grateful also for his constant nods throughout much of my criticism of the Boundary Commission. He demonstrates another of the complexities and variable elements in the Boundary Commisssion's work.
I hope that either today or tomorrow we shall develop a point that I am trying to make, and which the hon. Gentleman will make no doubt with clarity, that by operating according to different criteria in different places on different occasions, the result is confusion and discrepancy. We avoid that by giving paramount 154 importance to equality of numbers. It will be achieved only if we back that obligation by a second duty placed on the Boundary Commission.
The next Boundary Commission must be required not simply to draw lines, but to give reasons why it drew the lines where it did. The Boundary Commission is enabled to operate in a way that seems preposterous to many people because it is not required to explain why it came to its decisions. It should be obliged to add a note to its report saying, "This boundary runs along this road, or cuts across this stream," or, "This wall is divided," or, "These numbers are unequal for this reason." It will concentrate the inspectors' minds in coming to a reasonable conclusion which they can justify. There is nothing more likely to allow men and women to come to an unjustifiable conclusion than the knowledge that they do not have to justify it publicly. The request for an explanation is an elementary and reasonable obligation to place on them.
Thirdly, I believe that much of what the Home Secretary said about the history of the Boundary Commissions is right, not in terms of the historical fact, which goes without saying, but in the terms of the implication which he added. We want to change at a time and with a frequency that causes the minimum disturbance to constituencies and Members of Parliament. We want to do it in a way which, if possible, avoids the allegation of political bias and the uncertainty that comes from the feeling that one side has been treated badly and another has benefited unreasonably.
I do not suggest that the Boundary Commission, collectively or individually, has behaved in any biased or improper way. I beleve that the present rules allow it to behave capriciously and in a way that affects one area differently from another. That is not good for democracy, and I hope that the Home Secretary and I can agree that in the years ahead we must clear up the obvious mistakes of the present Boundary Commission report before we have another.
§ 5 pm
§ Mr. Charles Morrison (Devizes)
The Home Secretary was entirely right to open the debate by giving us a history lesson on the Boundary Commissions because in doing so he reminded us not only of the pitfalls that have existed but of the pitfalls that have been corrected and those that have been created. That is what today's debate is concerned with. I agree with the plea of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) for attempts to create a more genuine democracy. There was little in what the right hon. Gentleman said with which I disagreed. I shall make some suggestions that might help to improve the operations of the Boundary Commissions. In effect, I make a brief plea for a little more sanity.
I do not blame the Home Secretary for what I consider to be an extraordinary report of the Boundary Commission for England—nor do I blame the Boundary Commission. I agree with the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook that it has had to act within difficult rules and a difficult system. I do not blame Mr. Speaker as ex officio chairman; it is important to make that point, or I might not be called in another debate. I do not blame any of these eminent bodies or persons, but rather the system and the rules under which the parliamentary boundary reviews are taken and with which the commission is yoked, and the amazing consequences with which we are left.
155 Those consequences make "Alice in Wonderland" look like excessive normality. That is barely surprising when a report comes out in 1983 that is based on the world in 1976. The consequence is that the final report is much more to do with make-believe than with reality, as I shall try to show with reference to my county of Wiltshire, against the background of the commission's principles. I apologise for the fact that I shall quote a number of statistics.
In particular, as we have been reminded, the commission states that the electoral quota in 1976 is 65,753. In that year in Wiltshire there was an average electorate for each of the five constituencies of 71,461 voters. That effectively was the equivalent of 5.3 seats under the Boundary Commission's criteria. The commission, when referring to Wiltshire on page 144, paragraph 455, stated:We realised that the county was, in terms of population and new building, a rapidly expanding area which was expected to continue to grow. We considered, however, that the theoretical entitlement justified an allocation of no more than five seats.In other words the commission said that it recognised the growth trend in the county, but could do nothing about it despite rule 5, to which the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook has already referred.
Nevertheless, the report continued in paragraph 456:The electorates of the existing constituencies ranged from 64,999 (Swindon) to 80,233 (Devizes) and we considered the disparity was too large for them to remain unchanged.Therefore, recommendations were made for boundary changes which included a reduction in the maximum disparity within the county between those two constituencies from about 15,000 to about 7,700. That is slightly more democratic, but it was not very good.
In any case, on the basis of the recommendations, objections were made. The local commissioner at the local inquiry concluded that, nevertheless, Wiltshire should continue to have only five seats. The maximum disparity, however, in view of the objections based on 1976 was, as a result of that inquiry, increased again, albeit for good reasons, so that the disparity between Swindon and Devizes was increased from the original 7,700 to about 10,000.
However, all this is fairly irrelevant as, by the time of the publication of the new registers in 1983, the average for each of the five Wiltshire constituencies had grown, by 16 February 1983, to 79,094 with a total electorate in the county of 395,472. I checked these figures with the district councils concerned and I hope that they are correct, but I cannot guarantee it because there seems to be a little uncertainty. I add that it is proposed that the Devizes constituency in 1983, but after redistribution, should have over 84,000 electors. After seven years' work, the Devizes constituency will be bigger than it has ever been in its history. [AN HON. MEMBER: "It is so well represented."] My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) may have a point in his intervention earlier. Perhaps the constituency should have been bigger, but only on the basis that others should have been likewis.
On the basis of the 1976 quota, the total electorate for Wiltshire now has enough not for five seats, but for 6.01 seats. Given that the Boundary Commission has recognised the continuing growth trend in the county, even if it were now given seven seats—two extra—to take account of continuing growth, the average constituency would be over 56,000, more than for a considerable 156 number of other new constituencies. Again, I agree with the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook that that does not say very much for democracy nationwide.
All this means that, although the commission has proposed the removal of many anomalous constituencies, many new anomalies are being created. Why? Above all, because it has taken seven years to complete the review. What can be done about it? Perhaps there should be a running review to take greater account of population changes sooner than 10 to 15 years after the last review, and perhaps on the basis that there should be an automatic review after a change in the population of 10 or 15 per cent. since the previous review.
For choice, I should like to see the review completed in one or two years. That would also help to remove the nonsense which, even after seven years, can occur as between my constituency and the Swindon constituency represented by the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Stoddart), concerning which he has put down an amendment that I support and to which no doubt he will refer if he should be fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
One has to ask whether a review can be carried out in a year. The answer is that it can. Most of the unease that many of us feel about the report would and could have been avoided had the commission gone about its task using the tools of the last quarter of the 20th century rather than those of the 19th century.
There is now available the whole range of scientific, technological and engineering disciplines and techniques used in information handling, collectively known as information technology. The Government constantly tell us that they wish to give high priority to that. Had the commission been encouraged or allowed to make full use of what is available, we should now be debating a report based, not on 1976 figures, but almost certainly on those for 1981.
Computer programmes are now available that can automatically produce constituency boundaries that take full account not only of population figures but of the other factors to which the commission is required to have regard, including county boundaries, features of terrain, community ties, and so forth. Having been fed with the initial data, computers can do their calculations in minutes instead of years, and without the need for teams of clerks, all paid for by the taxpayer.
§ Viscount Cranborne (Dorset, South)
I have listened to my hon. Friend with close attention and considerable sympathy, but I wonder whether he and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) would be altogether wise in agreeing explicitly and implicitly with what seems to me to be the complete tyranny of numbers—the 65,700 figure. How happy would my hon. Friend be, were circumstances different, if he were to represent a constituency partly in Wiltshire and partly in Dorset, or how happy would I be to represent a constituency that was partly in Dorset and partly in Wiltshire? Does he not feel that the pulls of local loyalty have a part to play, of which computers take no account?
§ Mr. Morrison
My hon. Friend raises an important point, but I am advised that he is incorrect. Computers are such remarkable animals that they can do precisely what one wishes. In any case, I was not suggesting that we should cross county boundaries. I was not suggesting that 157 there should be precise equality between one constituency and another. I accept, given the geographical make-up of the whole of the United Kingdom, that that would be impossible. I suggest that there would be greater equality than we are now likely to have. It is surprising, after seven years, that there can be a constituency of almost 85,000, on the one hand, and constituencies of 55,000, on the other. So I do not believe that my hon. Friend need worry unduly about the use of computers.
In any case, I do not advocate the substitution of the computer for human judgment. Nor do I suggest the elimination, or even the limiting, of the scope of local inquiries. I am sure that such inquiries are an important feature of the process of drawing up new boundaries, as they allow electors to comment on proposals. However, even in the inquiry process, a computer could be of immense assistance. I am advised that, by locating a computer terminal at each inquiry, it would be possible for all those who attend an inquiry to examine instantaneously any proposal made at it, in terms of its implications for neighbouring constituencies—that is, the so-called knock-on effect. At the moment, the effects of the proposals have to be analysed by hand by the staff of the commission. That takes time, and often means that a second inquiry is necessary. The use of computers would enable those second bites of the cherry to be taken within minutes of the first.
Before hon. Members accuse me of talking simplistic science fiction nonsense, I refer them to an article that has been drawn to my attention in the June 1982 issue of the Journal of the Operations Research Society, which I am sure is nightly reading of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. The article reports on the use of such computer mapping techniques to draw up local government electoral areas or polling districts. Hon. Members may be surprised to know that this successful application of modern technology to the problems of devising acceptable electoral boundaries occurred, not in the silicon valley of California, but in Scotland. It means that a two-year review is quite possible. Furthermore, I have no doubt that my proposals would cut the costs of the Boundary Commission. By this means, sanity could be restored to its activities and to its proposals.
§ Dr. Edmund Marshall (Goole)
Having listened to the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison), I look forward to seeing him in the No Lobby tomorrow evening, but I hope that he will forgive me if I do not follow the arguments that he put forward concerning his part of the country. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Stoddart), if he captures your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will take up those arguments.
I take as my starting point the Prime Minister's words at Question Time on 17 February, when she said in answer to a question from the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert):I agree that the Boundary Commission's decisions are independent",and then, after an intervention,The testing through the courts was independent".—[Official Report, 17 February 1983; Vol. 37, c. 446.]I want to examine in some detail the validity of those claims by the Prime Minister.
158 First, I want to ask how far the Boundary Commission is independent. Who are the Boundary Commissions? As the Home Secretary said, the chairman ex officio of all four Boundary Commissions is Mr. Speaker. That chairmanship adds dignity and weight to the standing of the Boundary Commissions. However, it should not go without saying that Mr. Speaker's chairmanship for each of the commissions is entirely a formality. It is purely titular. He plays no practical part in the working of the commissions. It has long been the established practice for the Speaker not to intervene in the work and decisions. So none of my remarks—some of them may be seem to be strictures against the commissions—is in any way directed at Mr. Speaker.
As the Home Secretary correctly said, the other members of the Boundary Commission—from this point on, I shall refer only to the English Boundary Commission—are appointed in accordance with statute by various Ministers. This has happened once during the lifetime of this Government. To find out the other three members of the Boundary Commission for England I went back to the announcement of their appointment, which was made in a written answer by the right hon. Gentleman on 10 March 1980. At c. 397–8 one can read that the members of the Boundary Commission for England are the deputy chairman, the hon. Mr. Justice Walton, Mr. J. H. R. Newey, appointed by the Home Secretary, and Mr. W. W. Ruff, appointed by the Secretary of State for the Environment.
The statute also requires, in paragraph 8 of part I of schedule 1 of the 1949 Act, thatA member of any Commission appointed by the Secretary of State or Minister of Health shall hold his appointment for such term and on such conditions as may be determined before his appointment by the Secretary of State or Minister of Health, as the case may be".The Minister for Health has been superseded by the Secretary of State for the Environment.
Therefore, when the announcement of the appointments of the Boundary Commissions was made on 10 March 1980 the dates were also listed. In columns 397 and 398 of Hansard of that date it says clearly:The appointment of Mr. Ruff will expire on 31 December 1982."—[Official Report, 10 March 1980; Vol. 980, c. 397–8.]I have looked closely through all the columns of Hansard and other announcements made by Ministers in the last few months but I have found no evidence of any reappointment of Mr. William Willis Ruff as a member of the Boundary Commission for England. Therefore, I must come to the conclusion that Mr. Ruff, legally and technically, ceased to be a member of the Commission on 31 December 1982. Yet Mr. Ruff's signature appears on the Boundary Commission's report dated 1 February 1983—over a month after 31 December 1982. I can only assume that the legality of that signature is in some doubt.
One must also question whether Mr. Ruff's activities as a member of the Boundary Commission for England since 1 January have been in any way legal. Did he take part in the final meetings of the commission which determined the contents of its report? Certainly there is no provision in the statute for the back dating of his reappointment. There is no way in which the Government can now say that he carried on after the expiration of his appointment on 31 December. I suggest that one of the signatures on the report of the Boundary Commission for England carries some dubiety.
159 That leaves two signatures, and two out of four members are a bare quorum for the commission. They are both judges, both pillars of the Establishment. I assume that they would count it as a compliment to be described in that way. The deputy chairman is Mr. Justice Walton, or Sir Raymond Walton. I have looked him up and it is interesting to see that he was a Liberal candidate for North Lambeth in 1945. He did not do anything like as well as the Liberal candidate for Bermondsey who has come victoriously to the House today. Sir Raymond Walton, or Captain Walton as he was in 1945, lost his deposit as the Liberal candidate for North Lambeth.
The other member of the Boundary Commission for England is Judge John Newey—Mr. J. H. R. Newey. As soon as I found that he had been appointed a member of the Boundary Commission for England I looked him up in "Who's Who", and I found that he had also been a parliamentary candidate. He was the Conservative and Liberal candidate for Cannock in 1955 and, even later than that, he was the chairman of the Sevenoaks Conservative association between 1965 and 1968.
Thus, we have three signatures on a report of the Boundary Commission for England. One is the signature of a former Liberal candidate—a long time ago. The second is the signature of a former Tory candidate and, more recently, an active member of the Conservative party. The third is the signature of a former member of the—
§ Mr. Whitelaw
I am sure the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) will confirm that the last Labour Government objected to one member of the Boundary Commission because they felt that he had undertaken a political engagement on behalf of the Opposition. He was removed, understandably, and I accepted that at the time. I then had to appoint somebody in his place and in appointing Judge Newey I approached the right hon. Gentleman and the Opposition and they agreed to his appointment. That is the historical position.
§ Dr. Marshall
That does nothing to alter the fact that Judge Newey has been an active member of the Conservative party. I also see from "Who's Who" that Judge Newey was a special legal adviser to the Home Secretary just before that appointment.
We come to the position where the credibility and the much vaunted independence of the three-man commission is somewhat in doubt.
§ Dr. Marshall
It would be unthinkable to have a former Labour candidate as a member of the Boundary Commission. We must exclude consideration of Mr. Speaker in his formal capacity as chairman of the commission.
I move on to the assistant commissioners who are listed in the report at page 260, appendix H. When one looks at that list one is blindingly struck by the fact that they are all lawyers—all Queen's counsel or banisters-at-law. As they have gone around the country conducting their local inquiries we have had the veritable rule of judges and lawyers. There has been nothing quite like it since the days of Joshua in the Old Testament. The judges are effectively 160 determining what happens with the Boundary Commission and that has great influence on the future composition of the House.
There is widespread dissatisfaction with the way in which various assistant commissioners have gone about their work. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) was comet when he said that there has been a capricious approach in the way in which different assistant commissioners have interpreted the rules of redistribution in different ways in different localities.
One assistant commissioner went to conduct the local public inquiry into the Boundary Commission's provisional recommendations for the London borough of Ealing. There was clearly much dissatisfaction with the way in which he went about that inquiry and that prompted the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) to send a letter to The Times on 18 December 1981. I am glad to see that he is in his place today. I understand that he is happy that I should quote from his letter. He said:In the one experience I have had of the commission at work I was appalled at the autocratic nature of the assistant commissioner who conducted the enquiry. It was a thoroughly legal matter to him, it appeared, and if ordinary people could not handle it in this way, then bad luck! The result was that the lawyers were upheld and, having been given no idea of when they might be called to give their evidence (questions were not allowed), they left for work or the care of their homes and families and a whole side of the case was thus unsupported by witnesses.Those cogent remarks prompted a response from the assistant commissioner concerned, Mr. B. A. Marder, a few days later. He wrote a short and stuffy letter to The Times, which was excessively legalistic, proving the point made by the hon. Member for Ealing, North in his letter.
§ Mr. Greenway
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He kindly gave me notice that he would raise this point, and what he said is absolutely right. The assistant commissioner concerned has hidden behind the fact that I thanked him for the courteous way he conducted the procedures on the day simply as a formality and no more. I underline that he was autocratic by the fact that I received a legal letter from his solicitors after I wrote my letter to The Times, saying that if I did not retract I would be taken to law. [HON. MEMBERS: "Disgraceful".] It was disgraceful. I wrote to The Times following strong letters from my constituents who were there, and oral objections to the way the assistant commissioner had behaved. I was therefore doing my job in representing my constituents, and I had to endure that. It was disgraceful.
§ Dr. Marshall
The House will be grateful to the hon. Member for Ealing, North for showing that what l have been saying about the widespread disquiet with regard to the way the assistant commissioners conducted their task is correct.
Conservative Members have also expressed doubts about the way in which the Commission has gone about its work. I shall quote from Hansard of 18 November 1982 when, during Question Time, following an answer given by the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Sir D. Price) said thatthe secretary of the Boundary Commission, in refusing to give me or the people of Hampshire any reason for its more eccentric proposals, tells me that it"—the Boundary Commission—is answerable only to the Home Secretary.He then asked whether the 161Boundary Commission is, in the technical sense of the word, an irresponsible quango?What was interesting about that was the way in which the hon. Gentleman quoted the Boundary Commission as saying that it wasanswerable only to the Home Secretary.One wonders what degree of independence that implies. Lower down in the same column the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg), who has recently been elevated to the Government Front Bench as an assistant Whip, asked the Minister of State, Home Office:Will my hon. and learned Friend accept that it is confusing for a village or other local community, whose representations to an inquiry have been accepted, to find that the commission refuses to accept the conclusions of the commissioners"—that is the assistant commissioner—as a result of the inquiry? Would it not be helpful if the commission were obliged to state its reasons for not accepting such recommendations?"—[Official Report, 18 November 1982; Vol. 32, c. 401.]The only change that the hon. Gentleman received in answer to that question was that he might be able to gather such reasons when the report of the Boundary Commission finally emerged.
I checked with particular care whether the Boundary Commission report tells us very much about the difficulties of the hon. Gentleman's constituents in the villages of Skellingthorpe and Waddington. One finds very little that will comfort the good people of those villages.
Moving on from the way the assistant commissioners went about their tasks, I examined also the way in which the staff and the secretariats of the Boundary Commission are appointed. Great difficulty arises because the joint secretaries, and possibly other staff, of the Boundary Commission are in post on secondment from the Home Office. The Prime Minister's claim that the Boundary Commission is independent of the Home Office seems strange when there seems to be an overlapping and a going to and fro of staff between the two Departments. We have further evidence of that today as yet again we see at least one of the secretaries of the Boundary Commission present with Home Office civil servants to advise Ministers on the nature of the debate.
§ Mr. Whitelaw
I should like to clear up this matter. With regard to the hon. Gentleman's second point, we are following exactly the precedent followed by the Government in 1969 of which he was a supporter. It is exactly the precedent—[Interruption.] In my time, the Opposition Chief Whip did not intervene from a sedentary position, but if he wishes to do so now he is quite entitled to. It is perfectly reasonable that that precedent should be followed on the principle that the person who knows all the facts and details should be available to advise Ministers who have to reply to questions from hon. Members. That is reasonable. While I am on my feet, perhaps I should also reply to another point that the hon. Gentleman made. Mr. Ruff was reappointed on 2 September 1982 by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to continue his appointment until 30 April 1983.
§ Dr. Marshall
I can only say in answer to the right hon. Gentleman's last point that it was therefore strange that the usual consultation upon which the Home Secretary himself laid such stress in opening the debate did not take place with regard to the reappointment of Mr. Ruff.
§ Mr. Mark Carlisle
Is it not a fact that the report was ready and would have been presented to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary but for the action that was masterminded by the hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) and was started in the courts, which prevented its being produced at that time? It seems to have been perfectly reasonable to extend Mr. Ruff's period until that action had been completed.
§ Dr. Marshall
I take it as a compliment that I should be described as the mastermind of anything. I would not wish to be in the glow of such praise. However, it seems to me strange that, if there is a usual practice that appointments to the Boundary Commission are always the subject of consultation between all parties, it did not take place on this occasion. Nor, apparently, was any announcement of the reappointment made in the columns of Hansard.
I move on to examine other ways in which there has been a close working relationship between the Home office and the Boundary Commission. First, as is readily and openly admitted in the report of the Boundary Commission in page 3, paragraph 17, press notices issued by the Boundary Commission were often issued through the Home Office public relations department. Furthermore, on pages 8 and 39 of the report, it is clear that the Boundary Commission received guidance, in the form of a letter from a Home Office Minister as to the way in which it should interpret the rules governing its procedures. It is strange that the Boundary Commission should consider accepting such guidance. The commissioners are bound only by the wording of the rules as laid down by statute. There is no need, and it is quite improper for Ministers, to give further guidance to the Boundary Commission about how those rules are to be interpreted.
Arrangements were made to print the report, but I shall not cover that ground as it has already been covered by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook. However, I feel that it is important to quote the written reply that I received from the Home Secretary on 18 February, when he said:A printing demand for both the report and the maps was sent to Her Majesty's Stationery Office on 21 December 1982 enabling printed proofs of the report to be supplied to the Boundary Commission.After a final proof of the report had been signed by the Commission on 1 February, HMSO was authorised to print and warehouse final copies."—[Official Report, 18 February 1982; Vol. 37, c. 275.]It is, therefore, all the more surprising that the Home Secretary in a written reply to me on 14 February, saidI received the third periodical report of the Parliamentary Boundary Commission for England on 11 February and presented it to Parliament today."—[Official Report, 14 February 1983; Vol. 37, c. 12.]It is strange that printing took place long before the Home Secretary received the report. There is far too intimate and incestuous a working relationship between the Boundary Commission and the Home Office for the commission to be described as in any way independent of the Government. The links between the two organisations have been oiled and have worked satisfactorily for the two of them during the past three and a half years.
§ Mr. Whitelaw
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that he is not alleging that either of my statements in answer 163 to his questions were untrue? If he is, rather than make insinuations he should say that what I said was untrue. If that is what he wants to do, he had better do it.
§ Dr. Marshall
I simply read the right hon. Gentleman's answers to me. If he wishes to draw any conclusions from them, he can do so. Other people may also draw their conclusion.
§ Dr. Marshall
The right hon. Gentleman can sort that out in the appropriate quarters.
The second part of the Prime Minister's statement referred to the independent testing of the Boundary Commission's proposals before the courts. That statement was based on a misunderstanding of the nature of the litigation between my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and others and the Boundary Commission for England. The court action was not brought—nor could it have been brought—under the procedures available to test whether the Commission's proposals were the best that could be devised under the rules. All that was possible in that action was for an application to the court for a judicial review of the commission's work in accordance with the rules. All that the courts determined at the end of the day was that there were insufficient grounds for such a judicial review.
The tests for judicial review are extremely stringent, and especially so in relation to the rules governing redistribution. When the petition was heard in another place on 11 February, Lord Scarman—one of the appeal committee—said that the courts could intervene for judicial review of the commission's work only if it proposed a new constituency such as Old Sarum. That was the only scope available for judicial review.
It is interesting to note that during the court proceedings, counsel for the Boundary Commission—Mr. Simon Brown—said in the divisional court on 9 December that the Boundary Commissionreadily accept that in a number of instances, usually affecting a number of constituencies through a ripple or shunting effect, the Boundary Commission could have produced a smaller degree of disparity from the electoral quota
- (a) by making different use of wards as building blocks within counties and within London boroughs,
- (b) by wholly disregarding Metropolitan District boundaries.We will suggest that the Boundary Commission's decisions on these matters and consequent recommendations in all cases are amply capable of reasonable explanation and justification consistent with their having acted within the proper limits of their discretion.In other words, the Boundary Commission was not required to make as good a job as it could have done on recommending new constituencies to the Home Secretary and, through him, to the House.
The rules give the commission far too much discretion in these matters, so that it can justify all sorts of less-than-the-best proposals because of the exercise of that discretion. The rules governing the distribution in the 1949 and 1958 Acts are convoluted, ambiguous and imprecise. It was possible for the court of appeal to make the following two statements in its judgment. It was the judgment of the Master of the Rolls and Lord Justices Slade and Gobb about section 2(2) that:The practical effect is that a strict application of the rules ceases to be mandatory so that the rules, while remaining very important indeed, are reduced to the status of guidelines.That is a serious statement coming, as it does, from the Master of the Rolls and the court of appeal. They said that 164 the rules laid down by Parliament to guide and to place obligations upon the Boundary Commission were no more than guidelines. It is no small wonder that the Commission has produced some strange proposals.
Page 43 of that same judgment states:First, as we have already pointed out, the guidelines designed to achieve the broad equality of electorates, which are to be found in the opening limb of Rule 5, have been deliberately expressed by the legislature in such manner as to render them subordinate to the guidelines given by Rule 4, designed to prevent the crossing of boundaries and not vice versa.Those last three words are clearly underlined in the court of appeal's judgment.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook said, the present rules that govern the operation of the Boundary Commission are just not good enough. We need new legislation to revise those rules, to make them mandatory, to tighten up the statutory obligations imposed on the Boundary Commission and to make achieving as near equal size of electorates as possible the paramount factor which the Boundary Commission should set out to secure.
Furthermore, the deputy chairman of the English commission pointed out in paragraph 3 of the appendix that rule 1 of the rules of redistribution is somewhat singular in respect of its effect on England. The rule lays down that in Scotland there should be not less than 71 seats and that there should be not less than 35 seats in Wales. It also lays down that there should not be substantially more or less than 613 seats in Great Britain. There is a clear rule for Scotland and a clear rule for Wales, but England is lumped together with Scotland and Wales as part of Great Britain. In paragraph 3, the deputy chairman of the English commission shows what difficulties that causes when the English commission goes about its work. If the proposals that will be presented to the House tomorrow are implemented, there will be 633 seats in Great Britain. That exceeds by 20 the 613 seats prescribed in the rules. One wonders when the excess becomes substantially greater in the terms of the rules.
I have said enough to show that the Boundary Commission has altogether too cosy a relationship with the Government in present circumstances, and that the rules of redistribution allow the Boundary Commission far too wide a discretion for the Boundary Commission's report to have anything like the credibility and independent standing that the Prime Minister claimed for it last month. We shall come to the details of the English proposals tomorrow but I hope that we shall do so in the light of the general considerations that I have outlined today.
§ Sir Anthony Grant (Harrow, Central)
Unlike the hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) who made an uncharacteristic speech of inordinate length, I do not cast any aspersions on the integrity of the Boundary Commission. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, I believe that it is entirely independent, tries to be unbiased and tries to do its best. I submit, however, that its best has not been good enough in some cases. I agreed with the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) when he said that some of its decisions have been capricious. I shall illustrate that point by using the example of the Greater London borough of Harrow.
In 1948, when the electorate was approximately the same size as it is today, the Boundary Commission decided that two constituencies were inadequate. All hon. 165 Members will agree that the pressures on Members of Parliament then were considerably less then than they are today. It was decided then to form three constituencies. In 1976, the local government Boundary Commission tried to even out the slight discrepancies in the size of constituencies by altering ward boundaries. Had those ward boundaries been followed in the latest Boundary Commission report, the size of the electorate in each of the three constituencies would have been roughly equal.
However, in 1979, the Boundary Commission decided without of course, giving any reason, that there should be only two constituencies, one of which should have 72,000 electors and the other of which should have nearly 80,000 electors. It is accepted that par for the course is a little more than 65,000 electors. It is well understood that figures are not holy writ. The statistical case is only one side of the argument—the natural affinities and characteristics of constituencies must also be regarded.
§ Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)
Does my hon. Friend propose to mention that, uniquely for London boroughs, the distinguished assistant commissioner who helped the inquiry suggested that the Boundary Commission's recommendations be overruled and that Harrow be allowed to retain three constituencies? Does he also propose to mention the fact that was the overwhelming wish of everyone who gave evidence?
§ Sir Anthony Grant
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing that out. I had intended to make that point.
The result of the Boundary Commission's first decision was to have one constituency of nearly 80,000 electors and rising as compared with a 65,000 par for the course. One must admit that, against that, the local authority proposed that the averge, seat comprise about 51,000 or 52,000 electors if three constituencies were retained. There is, therefore, not much to choose between them and, give or take a little, the numbers game can be argued either way.
The size of constituencies must be compared with the rest of London, as opposed to the country. As a result of the Boundary Commission's proposals, Harrow and Hounslow will have far and away the largest electorate—an average of some 77,200. That should be compared with about 50,000 in other areas. The numbers game, therefore, does not apply equally throughout London.
That factor, combined with the break-up of natural affinities and characteristics of the constituencies, has caused a considerable outcry in Harrow. As a result of public pressure, a public inquiry was arranged. The inquiry took place over two days, under a distinguished Queen's counsel, Mr. David Sullivan. Unlike the hon. Member for Goole I believe that people with judicial experience are best equipped to conduct such inquiries. There have been no complaints from either side of the argument about the way in which Mr. Sullivan conducted that inquiry. He did it admirably. The inquiry took place on 7 and 8 July 1980 and Mr. Sullivan took nearly three months to consider the evidence. After going through all the evidence carefully—I shall not go through it all, but suffice it to say that his report represents 14 closely-argued pages—Mr. Sullivan firmly concluded that the Boundary Commission was wrong. He argued that numbers were not the sole criterion but that, give or take a little, it was even. He said that Harrow had special characteristics. It is 166 tedious to take the time of the House by repeating my maiden speech of 18 years ago, in praise of my constituency. Instead I shall quote from paragraph 36 of that report which states:Evidence was given that since its inception in 1948/1949 Harrow Central, and particularly recently under MP Mr. Grant, has developed an identity of its own".Mr. Sullivan went on to say in his conclusions:I think that Harrow should be allowed to retain three constituencies … I do not think it would be satisfactory that two Boundary Commissions"—that is to say, the present one and the 1948 one—should produce results which do not cohere".That report was greeted with considerable delight by the majority of Harrow citizens. Despite that, the Boundary Commission, without giving reasons, stated that it would not change its opinion, but that it would consider further evidence in writing that showed differences since the time of that inquiry. The borough council—not the political parties—took up that offer. On 10 March 1982 it submitted a series of careful representations to the Boundary Commission. It explained, among other things, that opinions were moving in favour of the three-constituency argument and against the two-constituency argument. That was a closely reasoned argument. The borough council drew attention to the Boundary Commission's words:The Commission expressly state in para 15 of 'The Review of Parliamentary Constituencies' that such a refinement"—in terms of statistical equality—"could not overcome the desirability of preserving local and historic ties.It was argued that Harrow would be out of line with other constituencies in the Greater London area if the Boundary Commission's proposals were followed.
All that resulted was a letter of acknowledgment from the Boundary Commission. Great uncertainty was caused to everybody, and attempts were made to discover the decision of the commission. Nothing was heard until the recent publication of the report, in which the Boundary Commission totally disregarded not only the position in 1948–49—the report then followed a two-day hearing by its commissioner—the representations made by two of the political parties, and many organisations, but the further evidence submitted by the borough council one year ago. Not only is the decision of the Boundary Commission capricious and wrong but it is highly discourteous. It has not only caused intense worry to the three Members of Parliament—we must put up with that—but, more importantly, great uncertainty among the people and citizens of the borough of Harrow who have not known where they stand. They have not had the courtesy of an immediate response from the Boundary Commission and are suddenly confronted in this manner at the 11th hour.
Although I accept the independence of the Boundary Commission, its integrity and that it has tried to be unbiased, in this case it has not done its job properly. It has disregarded the facts and it has been discourteous in the way in which it has conducted its affairs. The way in which this matter has been conducted is deplorable.
§ 6.5 pm
§ Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Edge Hill)
I understand and share some of the feelings of the hon. Member for Harrow, Central (Sir Anthony Grant). The dilemma that 167 three into two will not go is shared by many hon. Members on both sides of the House as a result of the findings of the Boundary Commission.
The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), spelt out the inevitable political subjectivity of some people because of the political implications to their party as a result of the findings of the Boundary Commission. The hon. Member for Harrow, Central stated some of the personal dilemmas that result from the upheaval of boundaries.
The hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall), said that other factors were involved. It was as though there were gremlins at work in the Boundary Commissions who, to suit their own political purposes, had acted almost in a subversive way. If what he said is true, it suggests a conspiracy almost of Watergate proportions. I find that difficult to believe. Although I understand the personal problems of some hon. Members and the political factors which the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook mentioned, it would be wrong to attribute to the Boundary Commissions the motive mentioned by the hon. Member for Goole. One cannot say that because someone was a Liberal candidate in 1945, he is subversive. The hon. Member for Goole was once a Liberal candidate. No hon. Member on the Liberal Bench would dream of suggesting that the hon. Gentleman is a Member of the Liberal tendency within the Labour party and trying to undermine it.
§ Dr. Edmund Marshall
First, I am not a Member of the parliamentary Boundary Commission for England, and secondly, I managed to save my deposit.
§ Mr. Alton
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman saved his deposit—I hope, when he was a Liberal candidate. In the most recent by-election test in Bermondsey the roles were reversed, and I hope that it is an omen. That is a matter for the electors when the time comes and not a matter for politicians in determining boundaries.
Several points can be made as a result of the personal factors that have influenced many hon. Members in their constituencies and in their experience of Boundary Commissions. There has not been fair treatment throughout the United Kingdom. If we are to continue with the crazy first-past-the-post system in our present constituencies, hon. Members should sort things out so that constituencies throughout the United Kingdom are treated in the same way. It is not right that one constituency in one part of the United Kingdom can have an electorate of less than 40,000, while in another part of the country the electorate can be about 80,000. I can give examples of those discrepancies in my party and they can be seen on both sides of the House. That is not good enough.
I am concerned about the indecent haste with which the Boundary Commission proposals appear to have been pushed through. It is clear that other arguments and reasons are continuing outside the Chamber about the timing of the next general election. That has had much to do with the way in which the proposals have been brought to the House. Many of the arguments and points that have been fairly raised by Members, such as the hon. Member for Harrow, Central, have not been properly examined.
There is a problem in some parts of the country in loss of representation. I know that the hon. Member for 168 Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker, will mention this point. To reduce the representation of Liverpool from eight to six seats in one fell swoop purely because of a loss of population is not good enough. I accept that Liverpool must lose, by anybody's calculations, one parliamentary seat. Given the nature and depth of the problems in that city—the Boundary Commission recommends the creation of the new seat of Riverside of approximately 74,000 voters, which contains the existing Scotland Exchange and Toxteth constituencies—and given the facts of 40 per cent. unemployment, massive social problems and the enormous caseload of an MP—the Boundary Commission is not required to take that into account at the moment—surely Parliament should tell it that in future those are factors that it should take into account, as it is told to take into account constituencies that are geographically far flung and sparsely populated, and the problems of Members who serve such constituencies. Depopulation in the inner cities causes many problems for hon. Members. The hon. Member for Walton and I have experienced the problems of factories closing, hospitals closing because the number of patients has fallen, schools closing because the number of children has diminished and all services declining.
People are like a shifting cargo in many of our cities. There is little enough to bind them together now, and the destruction of the familiar achieves very little. What sense does it make to ditch the names of familiar constituencies to create a new constituency that means little or nothing to those who live in it? My constituency has existed since the first world war. It boasts the world's oldest railway station still in use, and it was from there about 150 years ago that Stephenson's Rocket started its journey to Manchester, which the people in Liverpool have always regarded as one of our better-class suburbs. Two famous by-elections occurred there and there have been distinguished Members of Parliament. The first Member was William Watson Rutherford in 1918, who was followed by Jack Hayes, the Labour Member from 1923 to 1931, about whom people still talk.
I do not see the point of abolishing the name of that constituency and creating a new constituency called Mossley Hill, which absorbs most of the Edge Hill seat. The adjacent seat of Wavertree will be part of the new Broadgreen constituency. Wavertree was mentioned in the Domesday Book. Its town hall still stands, although it is used for other activities now. It is a clearly identifiable area with which hon. Members and those who live in Liverpool are familiar. Why should a commissioner come from London, draw a line on a map and, for the sake of convenience, create a new seat that bears no relationship to history, tradition or local social circumstances? Even if we cannot learn the lessons this time—I made personal representations to the Home Secretary, as did the local authority, the borough Labour party and the borough Liberal party—I hope that next time such factors will be considered.
I hope that we shall not continue to tinker with the system in the way that the Boundary Commission has, and that we shall find a better way of organising our democratic affairs. The present electoral system is fraudulent, corrupt and phoney. If the hon. Member for Goole wishes to complain about anything, he should attack the way in which our electoral system works. How can 169 Governments be elected with only one in three of British people's votes yet have a majority in the House and be able to steamroller through their proposals?
The Liberal and Social Democratic parties believe in the reform of the electoral system, and we hope that the next time a Boundary Commission sits, it will create multi-Member seats with a single transferable vote. Such a commission would not cause the same upheaval because it would mean that a constituency representing the entire city of Liverpool would be an easily definable area and that people would be able to relate to it as well as having a fair electoral system. It will also mean that electors would be given much more choice. They could choose the hon. Member for Walton, who is now regarded as a moderate in Liverpool compared with some of his friends in the Militant Tendency. The good people of Liverpool could give the hon. Gentleman one of their votes to ensure that he will stay in the House for many years.
People can exercise choice in their parties, and we might see more of the under-represented groups in the House. For example, there may be more women MPs. Some say that there is one lady too many on the Conservative Benches, but when one considers that there are fewer women here now than at any time since 1945, a fair and reformed electoral system might do something about that. It might also ensure that groups could exercise some choice, so that we might see some black and brown faces in the House.
A reformed electoral system would ensure that the adversarial cockpit that the House so often is would give way, not to parties owning each other, but to co-operation between parties. The Liberal and Social Democratic parties want such root and branch reform and we hope that we shall not continue to tinker. We would link it to other constitutional changes, such as regional government, county council reform, freedom of information and reform of the House of Lords. It is a mere 150 years since the great Reform Act, as it is known, was passed. It is time that the House began to consider the major constitutional reforms required to give us an updated and modern democracy rather than just arguing about Boundary Commission proposals.
§ Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)
I shall not follow the arguments of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton) on the quantified aspects of our debate. He seemed to be arguing at one stage for equalisation of the size of constituencies, yet a few words later he asked for unequal treatment of Liverpool.
We are debating the quantitative arrangements for voting. It is not in the brief of the Boundary Commissions to consider the qualitative aspects of voting, but, as the hon. Member for Edge Hill said, we should pay a little attention to them. To meet the qualitative aspects of voting, we must consider the method of voting and how to make each person better and more proportionately represented in our legislature, in this House and perhaps in another place. However, that is a matter for another day and another place. I hope that that day will come quickly.
The present system of first-past-the-post voting in single-Member constituencies means that constituency boundaries must be redrawn regularly if gross distortions are to be avoided in equality of representation. The 170 Boundary Commission for England has operated to achieve that. Contrary to the implications of the hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall), the commission's consideration has been unbiased, comprehensive and professional, against the background of its brief.
As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, it must be accepted that it is widely appreciated that the commission is essentially non-partisan. However, the commission is non-partisan in the sense that it is unpredictable which party it will favour. It is partisan in that there is no guarantee that its conclusions will not lead to a biased vote, as we saw in the elections to the House of Commons in February 1974. Perhaps, instead of a nonpartisan commission, we should consider a bi-partisan or multi-partisan commission to ensure better and closer representation of the majority of political support and of minority groups. The idea may be thought peculiar by some hon. Members, but it worked successfully when we were planning the democratic practices of the evolving colonies during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
Despite what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson), I shall take a tentative step down the path that my right hon. Friend understandably did not wish to travel, to consider the reform, which could be dealt with in a special Speaker's Conference, of the assessment of the ideal number of voters for each constituency—the so-called electoral quota. As the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) said, the electoral quota for Great Britain varies from a high of 65,753 for England to a low of 53,649 for Scotland.
The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook was advocating equality of size of constituency. I wonder whether he would wish all the constituencies in Scotland to be the same size as all the constituencies in England. I believe that that would be running in the face of the party political advantage to which he so openly committed himself at the start of his speech. I wonder whether he would argue, within the Scottish context as regards the newly redeemed constituency of Glasgow, Queens Park—which was about to be done away with and which the late Member for that constituency, Mr. Frank McElhone, argued about with the Boundary Commission and saved—against the anticipated electorate in that constituency of about 52,000, which is considerably under the Scottish norm.
It would be interesting to hear whether Government Members will commit themselves one way or the other on these questions.
It is interesting to note that a guideline of 70,000 electors to each constituency was established as early as 1917 or 1918. To decrease that number since then at exactly the moment when communications and all methods of maintaining contact with constituencies are continually improving seems to be flying in the face of good sense. All this has meant is that the number of hon. Members in the House has increased each time the boundaries have been redrawn, even though it was stated categorically by a commission in 1944 that the number should remain the same as it was at that time.
This is not to say that each vote should be based on absolute numerical equality, but it is to say that groupings of those numbers should be larger than they are. It has to be accepted that there will always be many different ways in which an electorate can be divided up into voting districts or constituencies and that with the single majority system different election results will occur with differently 171 drawn constituencies, even if the underlying pattern of volume of votes remains the same. But since the likelihood of aberrations in voting results increases as the number of constituencies increases, we should consider whether the time has not arrived—indeed, is not long overdue—when we should work towards fewer and larger constituencies rather than always move towards more and more constituencies of approximately the same size.
Other hon. Members have mentioned their own constituencies and I should like to make a brief mention of mine. I find absolutely no difficulty in looking after a constituency of about 74,000. I see no reason at all why I should lose the four parishes of Hailsham, Hellingly, Chiddingly and East Hoathly from the Lewes constituency purely to balance the figures. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) is equally sour about the idea of losing some of the nicest areas which he represents in East Dean, Friston and Jevington—whose people wish to continue to relate not only to the constituency of Eastbourne but also to the town itself.
I believe that we can look to the United States for an example. It may be interesting for the House to be reminded that, as far back as 1792, the congressional districts within the United States were set at 33,000. Those were almost doubled to 70,680 in 1842. In 1911 membership of the House of Representatives was set at 435, which still stands today, because of a recognition then that it would otherwise become absolutely unmanageable in the very near future. Much though we may dislike the fact, many people outside the House feel that the size of the House contributes to its lack of manageability today.
The average number of voters for a Congressman is about 500,000. That covers quite large variations between different parts of the United States, but it is laid down categorically in the law that there must be not more than a 15 per cent. variation between congressional districts in any one state.
As our boundaries are at present drawn they operate against the Labour party in county constituencies, they operate against the Conservative party in city constituencies and they operate against other national parties in one way or another almost everywhere. These effects are unintentional. This is not something that the Boundary Commissions have fed into their thinking, but they are none the less the consequence of our present redrawing process. So far as these effects are beneficial or the opposite, surely the Boundary Commissions should be directed to take them into consideration. They should not just happen. That job of considering the boundaries in the future will be easier if constituencies are made larger.
§ Mr. David Stoddart (Swindon)
I will not follow the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) too far, but I would say to him that if there is a reduction in the number of elected representatives there is always a danger of the growth of bureaucracy. I also remind him that in the United States, although they may have fewer representatives, those representatives have a huge support staff. Is that what he is suggesting for this country and for this House? He may very well have to make a choice between the two. But, as his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, this is perhaps not a matter for this debate but for some future debate—I hope the very distant future.
172 My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) described the recommendations of the Boundary Commissions as capricious, and indeed they are capricious as regards many parts of the country. As the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison) pointed out, they are capricious in respect of Wiltshire. As a Wiltshire Member, I very much resent the way this capriciousness has affected his constituents and mine, and those in the rest of Wiltshire.
I must emphasise that the undue haste with which this report has been presented and the order laid has increased the difficulties and the anomalies, which could have been ironed out had the Home Secretary not required the report to be presented to him so quickly. I have an amendment on the Order Paper, indeed, and I shall talk about that at a later stage. Because he laid the order so quickly after receiving the report the Home Secretary has not been able to take into account some of the very serious anomalies which exist and to which every hon. Member who has spoken so far in this debate has referred. I think that is unfortunate, and that is why I have sought to speak on the order today rather than tomorrow in the hope that even at this late stage, having heard what has been said in the debate by myself and others, he will withdraw the order and try to put this right. [Interruption.]
Hon. Gentlemen laugh, but surely that is a reasonable request to make to the Home Secretary when serious anomalies are pointed out not only from the Opposition Benches but from the Government Benches. I should have thought that we want to get this right, or at least as near right as possible. If hon. Members laugh at the suggestion that even at this late stage the Home Secretary should reconsider this and withdraw the order, to put things right, I do not know what we are coming to. If we cannot put forward our views and draw attention to anomalies, what is the purpose of the debate?
I understand and have understood for a long time that orders are not amendable. Therefore, the amendment that I have tabled and which the hon. Member for Devizes has been good enough to support will not even be called for debate. It is there simply as an expression of opinion and of protest. As it cannot be called, nothing that I or the hon. Member for Devizes, or indeed anyone else, may say will have any effect at all. That is thoroughly bad and it is disgraceful that the House should be treated in this way.
There were a number of objections to the commission's original proposals. For example, it was proposed that two wards should be transferred from the Devizes constituency to the Swindon constituency and two wards of almost exactly the same size should be transferred from the Swindon constituency to the Devizes constituency. Numerically, the proposal made no difference but it was a geographical absurdity. Moreover, in each case the two wards had always been closely associated with the constituency of which they were part. No one could understand why on earth the proposal had been made and it undermined local confidence in the commissioners' ability to make realistic and reasonable proposals for the area.
In the event, after touring the area, the commissioner recognised the good sense of the argument made at the local inquiry and reversed the decision so that the four wards remained in the constituencies with which they had always been associated. That was a great victory. Unfortunately, however, not all the anomalies or even the most serious anomalies in the area have been ironed out. 173 The arguments of objectors who suggested that there should be six seats for Wiltshire were swept aside, as was my argument that the county boundary should be crossed due to the disparities between Wiltshire and Oxfordshire. The commission had proposed that Wiltshire, with a total electorate of 357,305 in 1976 should have five parliamentary seats with an average electorate of 71,461 and that Oxfordshire with a total electorate of 361,686 in 1976 should have six parliamentary seats with an average electorate of 60,281. The difference in average electorate between adjoining counties is thus 11,180 or 18.5 per cent. As I pointed out to the commissioner, that disparity is excessive and unfair to Wiltshire electors.
Thamesdown borough council objected on the same lines. It also took the view that there should be six constituencies in Wiltshire, but the commission did not take that into account. Nor did it take into account my representations relating again to crossing the Wiltshire-Oxfordshire border. I pointed out that in 1976 the electorate of the Devizes constituency was 76,533 compared with an electorate in the proposed new Wantage constituency of only 58,262—a whacking disparity of 31.4 per cent. The commissioner was interested in my argument and asked me to make proposals. In my view, it was not for me to make proposals at that stage. The commissioner was most courteous and conducted the inquiry to everyone's satisfaction, but in view of the great disparities between the two counties it was the duty of the commission to re-examine the whole matter and to produce a better and more equitable solution, even if it involved crossing county boundaries.
The hon. Member for Devizes compared the figures for 1976 with those for 1983. I shall be less extreme and work on the basis of the commission's own report, giving the figures for 1976 and for 1982. In 1976, the electorate in the Wantage constituency in Oxfordshire was 58,262, in Devizes 77,717 and in Swindon 67,686. In 1982, however, the electorate in Wantage had increased by 5,788 to 64,040, in Devizes by 5,118 to 82,835 and in Swindon by 9,041 to 76,727. In 1976, the electorate in Wiltshire was 357,305 and in Oxfordshire 361,686—a difference of only 4,379. Those 4,379 votes apparently entitled Oxfordshire to one more seat than Wiltshire. That is one of the grave disparities in this report, and it is one which is grossly unfair to electors in Wiltshire.
Did the hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) wish to intervene? I thought I heard him say something. He has been very gay this afternoon. If he wants to intervene—I am sorry, I meant that in the strictest sense of the word.
In 1982 in Wiltshire the electorate was 388,507 and in Oxfordshire 391,910. The difference is reduced to 3,303. In Wiltshire the electorate has grown by 31,202; in Oxfordshire it has grown by only 30,224. The fact is that Wiltshire is growing faster than Oxfordshire but the Boundary Commission saw fit to allocate only five seats to Wiltshire and six to Oxfordshire.
If the Wiltshire/Oxfordshire border had been crossed and eleven seats allocated overall, on the basis of the 1976 figures the average constituency in the two counties would have contained 65,300 electors, virtually at the norm set by the Boundary Commission itself. As it is, because of the way the commission has allocated seats—six to Oxfordshire and only five to Wiltshire—this has resulted in an electorate in the Oxfordshire constituencies of only 174 60,337 and in Wiltshire of 71,461. I submit that Wiltshire has been treated extremely badly in this regard. A grave anomaly has arisen which will become more glaring as Wiltshire expands faster than Oxfordshire. Wiltshire, in particular north-east Wiltshire, is the fastest growing area in the United Kingdom, if not in the whole of Europe. The enormous planned growth in Wiltshire as a whole and in the north-east of the county in particular should have been taken into account when the Boundary Commission formulated its proposals. Because it was not, we have the perpetuation of a gravely unjust situation for at least 10 years and possibly 15.
This is why the proposals made by the hon. Member for Devizes should be taken seriously. It may well be that in such circumstances as these there should be a trigger mechanism which would bring about an automatic review of boundaries. That is a suggestion that is worthy of consideration and I hope that all concerned will consider it. The hon. Member is also right in saying that the inordinate length of time taken by this procedure must make the whole process, not completely valueless, but certainly much less valuable than it would otherwise be. We are basing these constituencies on 1976 figures. It is now 1983, seven years later. We may have an election this year or we may not. We may go into 1984. If we do we shall be fighting an election on the basis of constituencies that are already eight years out of date. The hon. Member for Devizes is perfectly right to say that there ought, in this computer age, to be a better way of doing these things while at the same time maintaining the democratic right of people to express a view or to make objections when the first proposals come out. I hope the suggestions he made will be considered.
I come now to my amendment on the Order Paper, which reads:at end add 'but considers that the boundary between the"— [HON. MEMBERS: "Order."]I am merely drawing attention to it. This is an Adjournment debate and, as I understand it, in an Adjournment debate one can say just about anything, and one can quote an amendment which should not, perhaps, be mentioned until tomorrow. I am quite sure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will rule me out of order if I am out of order, but I do not believe I am.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bernard Weatherill)
I will stop the hon. Member there and say that, while he may certainly draw attention to the amendment, I hope that he is not seeking to move it. Indeed, he cannot.
§ Mr. Stoddart
No, I know that to move it would be quite useless, because you would not call it. If I may, as you say, draw attention to it, it reads as follows: line 2, at end addbut considers that the boundary between the proposed Devizes constituency and Swindon constituency should be re-aligned with the new ward boundaries created by the Thamesdown (Parishes) Order 1982.".That sounds very parochial and perhaps very complicated but I would first like to draw the attention of the House to the report of the Boundary Commission, page 8, paragraph 18, where it refers to wards. It says:Any division of wards between constituencies was likely to break local ties, disrupt political party organisation and be confusing to electors.In particular reference to the Swindon constituency and that of Devizes on page 146 of the report, paragraph 464 says: 175The Thamesdown (Parishes) Order 1982 was not made in time for us to publish modified recommendations for Wiltshire before the completion of this report. Had there been sufficient time"—I emphasise that—we would have recommended changes to realign the boundary between the proposed Devizes constituency and Swindon constituency with the new ward boundaries. This has not been possible but the Secretary of State for the Home Department may wish to consider whether to make the necessary modifications to our final recommendations to take account of the changes to the local government boundaries in Thamesdown. The number of electors involved would have been 33 in 1976, increasing to 769 in 1982.Thus the Boundary Commission itself confirms what I said earlier, that had it not had to present this report so quickly it would have made the alteration itself. Having presented the report, however, the commission suggests that the Home Secretary might make the modification before presenting his order to Parliament.
We have referred to all sorts of absurdities—
§ Mr. Charles Morrison
The hon. Gentleman has not referred to the fact that the anomaly is even greater than he has already described. As a result of the order which comes up tomorrow, some of the people living in this ward will vote in the Devizes constituency in parliamentary elections but will vote with other people in that same ward in district elections. So there is an anomaly between parliamentary and district elections. It may be all very well for them to have to put up with me rather than endure the hon. Gentleman parliamentarily but we will have a very silly situation when there is a difference between parliamentary and district elections.
§ Mr. Stoddart
Yes, I am just coming to that. When the Thamesdown borough council noted this anomaly and realised that nothing was going to be done about it, it immediately wrote to me and, I think, to the hon. Gentleman. I wrote to the Home Secretary on 23 February—it had to be done quickly—drawing his attention to the absurd anomalies that would exist in the Swindon constituency because the Boundary Commission was unable to alter its report and could not take account of the changes in the parish boundaries which would come into operation in April 1983.
As a result Toothill ward as it is now constituted will, for parliamentary purposes, be divided between the Swindon and Devizes contituencies with 6,937 electors voting in the Swindon constituency and 1,187 electors voting in the Devises constituency. For district purposes they all vote in Thamesdown—it is a unified ward. However, under these proposals, which are supposed to bring things up to date and which will last 10 or 15 years, there is a divided ward with some of the voters voting in Swindon and others voting in Devizes.
That will be confusing and frustrating for electors in Toothill as 1,187 of them will find that, although for district council elections they will vote in the same electoral area as their fellow residents in Toothill, for parliamentary elections they will vote in a different constituency. That is the height of absurdity. Apart from inconvenience to the electors, the situation for political organisations will be nightmarish as different local parties or assocations will be responsible for elections at local and national level. All hon. Members will recognise the difficulties of that. It is absurd that we should pass an order that introduces such an anomaly.
176 I sent the Home Secretary a map that showed the triangle that was being created in the ward. The boundary line under the draft order will divide adjacent properties at three separate points. In Worsley road, for example, numbers 35 to 69 and numbers 2 to 66 will vote in the Devizes constituency and numbers 1 to 33 in the Swindon constituency while in Crawford close numbers 1 to 141 and numbers 2 to 70 will vote in the Devizes constituency and numbers 143 to 207 and numbers 72 to 136 in the Swindon constituency. Voters living next door to each other will be voting in different constituencies.
The point is well made by the chief executive that local political party organisations are based on district wards. Those wards often represent a community with interests in common, and any division of district wards between constituencies is likely to break local ties, disrupt political party organisation and be confusing to the electorate.
§ Mr. John Home Robertson (Berwick and East Lothian):
I hope that my hon. Friend's area is a good Labour area.
§ Mr. Stoddart
Does my hon. Friend want to intervene? [Interruption.] I shall take my time as this is an important matter for Swindon and Devizes. I heard ray hon. Friend's comment. I have not canvassed the area so I do not know whether there is a majority of Labour supporters. However, the proposals are inconvenient to my people in Swindon and to people in Devizes. The draft order could be amended. There is plenty of time to do so if the Home Secretary merely had the will.
In case hon. Members think that that is only my view and the view of the hon. Member for Devizes, I shall quote the editorial from my local newspaper. The Evening Advertiser is an old-established and well-respected local newspaper, by no means a Labour newspaper. It is very fair. Therefore, what is said in its editorial should be noted by the House. In any event I shall read it as it is so good and puts so well and succinctly matters that we should know about in Westminster. The headline is "Out on the boundary". The editorial states:The wheels of bureaucracy grind exceeding slow but there is no excuse for the almost indecent haste"—those are not my words, but the words of the editorial—with which the Government is pushing through the present changes in constituency boundaries.The changes envisaged by the Boundaries Commission in its latest review are recorded to be worth 20 seats to the Conservatives at the next election.It would deny the existence of human frailty to suggest this fact played no part in the speed at which the operation has been carried out. And it must be noted that the Labour Party is acting with more than a little self-interest in its attempts to block this long-overdue measure.However, in the long run both sides must look at the purpose of the review.With the depopulation of many inner-city areas, there has grown up an enormous disparity between the number of voters represented by one MP. In Cirencester and Tewkesbury, for instance, there are well over 90,000 voters compared with not much more than half this figure in a few constituencies in the great conurbations like London and Birmingham.But in trying to equalise this situation, it is important that stupid anomalies like the one likely to arise in Toothill, where 15 per cent. of residents will he in Devizes constituency and 85 per cent. in Swindon, should be eliminated before they arise.Otherwise a totally confusing and frustrating situation will persist for another decade and more until the next review.We hope the Home Secretary will set his face against the short-term possible gain to his party of getting the job done quickly in favour of a better long-term prospect for dernocmcy".I can say no better than that.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Before I call the next speaker, I remind the House that there is great pressure to take part in the debate and that 30-minute speeches will make it difficult to call everyone who wishes to speak.
§ Mr. Mark Carlisle (Runcorn)
I am grateful to be called. My constituency disappears under the boundary changes. Unlike the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Stoddart) I do not propose to talk about the details of my constituency, but I shall try to stick to the general principles behind the review.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) is not here. He made an uncharacteristically sour speech. His attempt to smear the integrity and independence of the members of the Boundary Commission fell flat. It was beneath him to suggest that because one of them, a High Court judge, had been a Liberal candidate 40 years ago, and another judge had been a Conservative chairman in a constituency some years ago, that affected their impartiality, particularly when he said that he would not suggest that the impartiality of someone such as Mr. Speaker would be affected by his previous position as a constituency Member of Parliament.
The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) was critical of the report of the Boundary Commission for England. It contains anomalies, but it was hard on the Boundary Commission to accuse it of being capricious when I think that it did its best to follow the rules that we set down in the House for it. Whereas those rules may not be appropriate, and accepting the anomalies that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, when one looks at the report and recognises the variations in numbers that eventually arise in the size of constituencies, one cannot claim for a moment that the commission has not made an impartial and fair attempt to meet the rules by which it is guided.
As to whether it is right that the rules should be changed, of course it is easy for the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook to say that the paramount consideration should be the need to have equality of numbers between various constituencies and that every other rule should be subjugated to that main aim. I wonder whether that is right.
Surely the one justification of the system by which individual Members are elected on a first-past-the-post basis is that each constituency is in itself a geographical entity. If that is so, then, in deciding what those constituencies should be, account must be taken of other considerations than merely the size of the constituencies. Therefore the House is right to say, as the rules say, that where possible county boundaries, metropolitan district boundaries and London borough boundaries should not be crossed. If county boundaries are crossed, the effect inevitably must be that the geographical entity of a constituency, one of the strengths of the present system, is lost.
The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook was unfair in basing the whole of his attack and criticisms of the Boundary Commission on the supposition that it had failed to cross county and borough boundaries when this might have been done to reach more equality in electorates, because it is clear from the report that the commission discussed this issue with the representatives of the political 178 parties who requested unanimously that the conunission should not cross the boundaries of either London boroughs or counties.
§ Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Thornaby)
Would the right hon. and learned Gentleman not agree that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) would no doubt take an entirely different view and would want the Boundary Commission to make its judgment on the basis of communities, were that in the interests of the Labour party?
§ Mr. Carlisle
No doubt that is so, but I was avoiding that sort of remark; I was sticking to his arguments about the outcome of the report.
I find it unbelievable that when the Boundary Commission refers to the views of the parties it is, as he suggested, merely the view of one branch of the Labour party, and that the Sheffield branch was giving one view while the London branch was giving another. I remind the House again of what the report said about crossing boundaries:We discussed the situation with the representatives of the political parties. They were of the unanimous opinion that none of the constituencies in London should cross a borough boundary, despite the disparities which currently resulted from this arrangement. Similarly they were opposed in all circumstances to the crossing of any county boundary. We were asked to give an assurance that we would only recommend a constituency which crossed a county or London borough boundary in the most exceptional circumstances.I cannot read that as meaning anything but that the commission was asked to give an assurance by the national party representatives of the political parties with whom the matter was discussed. I question the real motive of the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook in attacking the Boundary Commission when it is clear that it was at the request of all the political parties that the commission attempted to retain county boundaries and London borough wards within constituencies.
I was the Minister in the Home Office responsible for electoral matters when the local government boundary changes were made. Everyone may say, as my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison) said, that the report appears to be unfair in one particular or another. It is not realistic for the House to attempt to approach the report in that way. We must look at it as a pack of cards which stands or falls together. If the House starts to change one piece and knocks 5,000 off one electorate, it must put those 5,000 somewhere else. If the Home Office tried to interfere with the report of the Boundary Commission or if the House attempted to change it piecemeal, we would be in far greater danger of being accused of interfering with the impartiality of the Boundary Commission than if we were to accept the report, with its discrepancies.
§ Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)
To make it clear that there is a difference, we should remember that the Home Secretary can interfere with the report but the House cannot. That is the difference.
§ Mr. Carlisle
The hon. Gentleman is right. I meant that it would be wrong for the Home Office to interfere. This arose at the time of the local government review when there was a lot of pressure on the Home Office to change the report. We took the view, first, that if we changed it, we should be accused of gerrymandering; secondly, that if one starts changing a pack of cards, it results in many difficulties in other parts of the building, if that is not too much of a mixed metaphor.
179 In regard to the rules, it would be impossible to get complete numerical equality, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton) said, under the present system of elections. Although I may be out of order, I had sympathy with some of his general remarks. It is right to stick to county boundaries and to London borough boundaries to provide the geographical entity that is required.
I am concerned that we appear to be getting steadily larger as a House, as was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone). The Boundary Commission explained that this was inevitable under the rules under which it was operating. We are getting to the stage where we should ask ourselves whether 633 is significantly greater than 613, the figure to which the Boundary Commission had to work. If the rules are to be examined, we should consider whether there should be a fixed number of Members to which the Boundary Commission should work instead of having each time a slight increase in the size of the Chamber.
I take it from what the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook said about weighting that he does not like the differentiations within the English constituencies, nor the differentiations with Scotland on the one hand and Wales on the other. However, they become less relevant as time goes by. According to the report of the Boundary Commission, many hon. Members argued that inner city areas ought to have higher weighting because of the problems of inner cities, as the hon. Member for Edge Hill mentioned. Equally, other people argued that country areas ought to have extra weighting because of the size of the constituencies. There is not a case for individual weighting. One ought to try to provide constituencies of similar size, subject to the argument about geographical empathy.
That leads me to the greatest problem faced by a Boundary Commission—that what we are discussing is many years out of date. That is not the fault of the Boundary Commission. It had to take the size of the electorate in 1976 as the basis for finding the average constituency size; it was prevented from taking into account any predicted future growth in population, even for areas such as new towns. I do not know the answer.
It would not be right to go back to reviewing boundaries every three to seven years because the upheaval of changing constituencies is such that if they are to mean anything they should remain the same for at least two elections. It is probably right that a general review should take place only every 10 to 15 years.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes, I should have thought that in the age of the calculator and the computer some means could be found of providing more up-to-date figures on which Boundary Commissions could work so that they could complete their review in a shorter time than has been taken in this case. It would have made no difference had the Boundary Commissions reported in 1979 instead of 1983 because the report does not take effect until the following election.
I believe that we should think about whether it is right to allow for the gradual growth of the size of the House and whether we can do anything to have the review nearer the end of the 15-year period, so that when it is published the report takes more account of the size of the constituencies at that time rather than what they were five years earlier.
180 I believe that Cheshire, which includes my constituency, has been gravely changed by the Boundary Commission for England. However, it is inevitable and I believe that the Boundary Commission has done its best. It is bound to take account of the changes in population that have taken place over the years.
The hon. Member for Edge Hill said that he believed that Liverpool had been hard done by. I notice that even in five of the six seats—a reduction from eight—the electorate is still lower than the national average, whereas in Cheshire seven of the ten new seats are to be above the national average. Such discrepancies are inevitable.
Of course one regrets breaking ties with a constituency that one has represented for 18 years. During that time one has become attached to all the constituency and knows that, whatever happens, one will not represent it all at the next election. However, if we are to retain, as I believe we must, the confidence of the public in the belief that we can treat boundary changes impartially and fairly there is no alternative to accepting the impartial recommendations of the impartial Boundary Commissions. Therefore, if I may presume into tomorrow's debate, I hope that the order to be discussed then will go through even though it has grave effects on my constituency.
§ Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)
So that Conservative Members do not gain the impression that I have left the Shadow Cabinet, or anything of that kind, because I am not on the Front Bench, I point out that have as it were, been let off the leash on this matter because it is not strictly a party political issue but rather a House of Commons issue. It is right that Opposition Members should be allowed to participate freely from either the Front or Back Benches, according to their taste.
The point that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton) made, and that I shall make, is not that we want weighting in favour of the inner cities, but that we want it understood that if there is to be an average, Liverpool should be somewhere on the lower and not the higher side, because inner cities have special problems. For example, the areas of Liverpool that we represent have terrible unemployment problems, some of the worst housing in the country, despite all the efforts that have been made over the years, and poverty of a type, particularly with the high levels of unemployment, unknown elsewhere in the country.
There is a dreadful case load for Members of Parliament who represent inner city areas such as those in Liverpool. Our surgeries are important because masses of people come to see us. They need looking after, and if the numbers of people in a constituency are increased, the work load becomes worse. We do not have the type of staff that they have in the United States of America. I should not want that, but all these matters should be taken into consideration when we discuss inner city problems and the size of inner city electorates.
I believe that the case made by my party and the Liberal party for a reduction from eight to seven seats was unanswerable and should have been acceded to. It is wrong that the number of seats should have been reduced from eight to six in one fell swoop when we have the problems that we have discussed. Page 19 of the report of the Boundary Commission for England shows that Beckenham will have 59,295, Chislehurst 54,024, Orpington 56,883 and Ravensbourne 58,256 constituents. 181 That should be compared with the Liverpool seats none of which are below 60,000 and one of which reaches 74,000. It is ridiculous to have that type of anomaly in inner city areas. Areas with a lower electorate do not have the same problems as cities such as Liverpool.
I did not intervene during the inquiry. I left it to my party, because I did not want people to say, "There is old Heffer creeping along, doing his best to safeguard his electorate." I am sure that my actions would have been interpreted in that way, and that every newspaper in my area would have said, "There you are, that is what is going on. They are looking after their own interests." However, I now have the opportunity to say that a great mistake has been made.
I want to make one or two points only, because I do not think that it is right to abuse the fact that I have come on to the Back Benches to discuss this matter. I disagree with what the hon. Member for Edge Hill said about proportional representation. However, I understand why the point was made. We should continue with our present electoral system—the hon. Member for Edge Hill must know this as well as anyone because over a period he has built up a relationship with his constituents, as I have with mine. If we were to change our electoral system that type of relationship would go. Those of us who meet European parliamentarians know that most of them, not all, do not have the same relationships with their electorate as we have with our constituents. Sometimes they do not even know who their electorate are in the strict sense of the term. Our people, quite rightly, can come to see us in our constituencies and in the House, and that is important.
There is another important point that we should take into consideration. In most other European countries—France was recently the exception that proved the rule—there are coalition Governments, which usually move on the basis of the slowest ship in the convoy. They cannot get done the things that we can do, rightly or wrongly. I believe that the policies of this Government are deplorable. What they do on privatisation and their failure to deal with unemployment in the way that it should be dealt with is deplorable, but at least they have a majority and can get something done. When the Labour party has a majority and moves to the Government Benches we shall be able to do the things that we think are right, and we can make progress. If there is a coalition people cannot move forward as they wish, and all the time are looking over their shoulder to see what their coalition partners might do. At a critical moment, the latter could walk out and the whole thing would collapse. Those are the basic reasons why we should not move towards the system suggested by the hon. Member for Edge Hill.
I conclude as I started, with my main point that we have not got the best possible deal for the people of Liverpool. I agree with the hon. Member for Edge Hill about names. Why change traditional names every time? I do not know. We have lost the name—it is not even included in something else—of the Scotland division. In the House we had two hon. Members from the Scotland division for nearly a century. There was Davy Logan, a marvellous Member, and before him T. P. O'Connor, both of whom were Irish nationalists. The Scotland division was something that everyone on Merseyside and in Liverpool knew and understood. Now it is the Riverside division, when the river is in decline. It would have been a good idea 182 to have at least kept the old name, as it was something that was worth keeping. A great mistake has been made and I can do nothing else except vote against that. I fear that it will not make much difference, but I shall do so, nevertheless.
§ Mr. W. Benyon (Buckingham)
I agree with the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) that this is a House of Commons matter. It is right and proper for hon. Members to go into the details of their constituencies. We are talking about the legislation that covers the operation of the Boundary Commissions. I want to change the rules, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) wants to change the rules and many hon. Members who have spoken today want to change the rules.
I take as my starting point a quotation on page 9, in paragraph 23 of the report. It says:We have consistently taken the view that we are neither required nor empowered by the Rules to take into account the number and distribution of the electorate subsequent to the review date in 1976, even in cases where such projections appear reliable.My constituency has an electorate, as from 15 February, of 126,000. Just to get this in perspective, it is twice the English mean and over six times the size of the present smallest English constituency—that is England, let alone Scotland and Wales.
The Boundary Commission for England says on page 85, in paragraph 57:However, the assistant Commissioner considered that the electorate of the borough would not be large enough to comprise two whole constituencies for many years and that it would exceed the electoral quota by a substantial margin until such time as any further review was undertaken.The Boundary Commission has proposed that this seat should be cut in half. That sounds fair enough until one notices the facts. On page 85, paragraph 54, the two successive constituencies of Buckingham and Milton Keynes are shown as having electorates of 55,000 and 50,000 repectively. Those are the 1976 figures. However, on 15 February this year the new Milton Keynes constituency had already reached a figure of 80,000 electors—a yearly increase of 5,000.
If this rate of growth is continued over the next 10 years—there is a strong chance that the rate could be greater—at the end of that 10 years this seat, whoever represents it, will have an electorate of between 130,000 and 140,000. People will ask, "So what? This has happened in the past and will happen again—one just has to grin and bear it." I am a supporter of electoral reform, as are a number of other hon. Members who have spoken today, but if I were a supporter of the first-past-the-post system that we now have, I should be extremely worried by the existence of such glaring injustices. It is a negation of democracy, and it is unnecessary.
I first raised this matter when I came to the House in 1970, with the Government of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexley (Mr. Heath). The Boundary Commission for England told me then that it could not make an interim report, because it would mean altering all the seats in Buckinghamshire and there was no general agreement that this should happen. I went to the Minister and he sided with the Boundary Commission. During the last Labour Administration, I raised the matter again. This time, the reply was that a general review had started and therefore an interim review would be pointless as it would anticipate the general review.
183 If we turn to appendix D—this was the point of my intervention to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—we find that the rules governing the English commission's final recommendations must be madebetween 10 and 15 years from the date of the report on their last general review. That was submitted on 21 April 1969, and so the next report must be made between April 1979 and April 1984.But look what is happening. The previous review was based on the position in 1965, but was implemented in 1970 when it should have been implemented in 1969, 14 years after the previous revision. The figures for this revision are based on those in 1976 and we are implementing them in 1983—a gap of 17 years.
If this progression continues, the next gap could be even longer. It could be 18 years, and the effect on areas with rapidly growing populations is obvious. In any event, the lag will continue and the only way to change it—this was a point touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison)—is to make the Boundary Commission report more quickly, or at least to start it in 1986 and not, as would presently be the case, in 1995.
However, the rapidly growing areas are relatively few. The vast majority of constituencies do not change very much between elections. I can spell this out in greater detail, but I do not wish to bore the House with the statistics, which are on page 2, paragraph 10. They show what the position was in 1976 and how many seats had an electorate above a certain figure and how many below.
The solution that I offer to the House and the Government is simple. When a county or metropolitan area electorate rises or falls by the electoral quota the commission should have a statutory duty to review that area. In Buckinghamshire, for example, the electorate in 1976 was 359,000. In fact, we got six seats, so one must multiply the quota by six, and that is the starting point. When that figure rises by 65,753 it should trigger an interim review.
Perhaps I can deal with some of the arguments that I know will be made against this step. The first argument is that the electoral quota is too low a tripwire. I do not accept that, and I believe that this can be proved statistically. If that is really the stumbling block, let us not have the electoral quota—let us have one and a half times the electoral quota—but a tripwire there must be.
The second argument is that, in practice, it may mean disturbing all the constituencies in a county or metropolitan area. I know that this is where the strongest opposition comes from colleagues in this House. I understand hon. Members' reluctance to have their constituencies altered. It should be remembered that it was a Tory Government who produced the longer period between elections, and that that was done because hon. Members did not like having their constituencies altered. Frankly, if this is the only way to avoid such appalling anomalies, it is a sacrifice that should be made. However, I appreciate that a metropolitan area may be too big, and that it may be more satisfactory to operate on the basis of a borough or group of boroughs.
The third argument is that this arrangement could mean an interim increase in the number of Members of this House. If the electorate stayed the same, that would be only temporary. An increase in one constituency would be counterbalanced by a decrease in another. If, on the other hand, the electorate is rising, as it is at present, a decision has to be taken on the future size of the electoral quota.
184 I agree with hon. Members who have said today that this House is getting too big. In my opinion, it should be reduced. The easiest way to do that is gradually to reduce the electoral quota as each boundary revision takes place. However, that in no way detracts from my central argument, which is simply concerned with removing the inequalities occasioned by rapid movements of population.
Finally, only the Government can do something about this matter. In his speech today, the Home Secretary kept saying that this was a matter for Parliament. It is, of course, in the last resort, but the only people who can initiate legislation are the Government. Of course, it could be done by a private Member's Bill, but that would be unlikely to succeed. I hope that today I shall be given a more encouraging reply than has been my lot from the previous two Governments. Very few seats are affected, and those affected to the extent experienced by my constituency are even fewer. All Governments, without exception, pay attention to numbers, so exceptions to the general rule are inconvenient, but to allow such an injustice to continue is a complete negation of democracy and an affront to justice and equity.
§ Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Thornaby)
First, I shall deal with a number of points that have been raised by hon. Members and with which I agree, before I come to my major argument about Boundary Commissions in general.
What was said by the right hon. and learned Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) and other hon. Members about the out-of-date nature of the data on which the Boundary Commissions work is something with which I am sure every hon. Member who has gone through this process will have great sympathy. It seems remarkable that the commissions should deal with data that are some years old, taking no account of the movements of population that they, we and the local authorities know will take place in the very near future. Thus, even before the boundaries come into operation, we know that they will be inappropriate in a short time, if not by the time that they come into operation. In this day of electronic information technology, I should have thought that it was possible to take into account much more up-to-date figures and shifts of population about which there is some certainty.
What has been said about the impartiality of the Boundary Commissions should be taken, in some instances, with a pinch of salt. It is unwise—I put it no higher—to appoint to the Boundary Commissions people who have been active in politics. There is validity in the criticism that it is not sensible to appoint to highly sensitive positions in which it is necessary to be impartial people who have been involved in politics. I do not rule that out completely, but it would not be a very wise move. I have no reason to doubt the impartiality of the commissions, and the attempts that have been made to smear them, suggesting that they have been partisan in drawing up the boundaries, are very wide of the mark and unworthy of the people who have made them.
Inevitably, there are disappointments and antipathy towards some of the recommendations. No doubt those hon. Members whose constituencies are being replaced will, in a few years' time, witness their successors defending the constituencies now proposed in the same sentimental way as they defend theirs today. That is an 185 inevitable consequence of the system that we have. I want to say a few words about what I see as the main deficiency of the present system.
The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) said that we must avoid the glaring anomalies that would arise if we did not have regular boundary reviews. All hon. Members who have spoken have said the same thing. The right hon. Gentleman went further. He said that he wanted to base the commissions' reports almost entirely on the principle of getting the numbers as equal as possible. I entirely agree with that, and I think that other hon. Members agree with it as a principle but if the right hon. Gentleman believes that, he will have to ignore many of the things that his colleagues and other hon. Gentlemen, including the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), have said about the need to relate the boundaries to the community that the Member represents. There is an inherent conflict in trying to find a mathematical equality for constituencies and trying to draw boundaries around natural communities with which people can identify.
I view with great cynicism the attachment of the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook to the great principle of equal numbers as far as possible. In view of the High Court action taken by some of his right hon. Friends, and in view of what he said today, it is clear that if it suited his book and his party's book to go for another basis for the Boundary Commissions to work on he would praise that to the rooftops. Equality of representation, based on the principle that there should be equal voting rights, with each vote having equal representation, as far as possible, in this House, cannot be achieved under the present system. On the basis of the present first-past-the-post system and single-Member constituencies, it is simply not possible for each vote to obtain equal representation in the House.
Over recent years, there has been increasing disillusionment with our system because of the changing pattern of voting in Britain over the past 30 years. In 1951, 97 per cent. of those voting voted for either the Conservative of the Labour party and those two parties obtained 98 per cent. of the seats in the House. By October, 1974 only 75 per cent. of the electorate voted for the Labour and Conservative parties but nevertheless they still had 94 per cent. of the representation in the House. Now, because of the decline in support for the Labour and Conservative parties and the unfair voting system we simply do not have a system in which each vote, as far as possible, commands equal representation in the House.
If hon. Members believe in that principle, they must agree with the proposal that I and my hon. Friends in the Social Democratic and Liberal parties have put forward. That would solve the problems to which many hon. Members have referred during the debate. We have called that proposal community proportional representation and I hope hon. Members will study it with care. It means that we would have multi-Member constituencies. Large and cohesive communities such as Sheffield and Leeds would have a single constituency with several members representing it. This is not the time to pursue the argument, but that means that there would still be the present attachment to the community. We should not have 186 arbitrary boundaries dividing a community, with two sides of a road represented by different Members but with the same community interest.
If there is an issue affecting ICI or British Steel on Teeside, my constituents, although those plants are not in my constituency, are just as much affected as those in the arbitrary constituencies in which those plants are situated. It is much better from everyone's point of view if the constituents and their Members have an identity of interest with the boundaries going round natural communities. If at the same time we can achieve that basic principle which, during the debate, hon. Members have said that they want to achieve—that each vote shall as far as possible command equal representation in the House—it could be achieved through having a proportional representation system in a multi-Member constituency. That would retain the link between the community and the Member with proper proportional representation.
In February 1974, the Ulster Unionists, on the basis of 1.3 per cent. of the United Kingdom vote, obtained 11 seats in the House. In October 1974, the Scottish Nationalist party obtained 11 seats with only 2.9 per cent. of the United Kingdom vote. In contrast the Liberal party, which had 18 or 19 per cent. of the vote, obtained only about 14 per cent. of the representation here. There are many other examples of the disparities that exist as a result of our single-Member constituency and voting system.
In February 1974, the Labour and Conservative Members in the House were elected by an average of only 39,000 people. By comparison, on average, each Liberal had to obtain 430,000 votes in order to obtain representation in the House. That is hardly a situation in which each vote commands equal representation in the House. That is a gross anomaly which, with the changing political situation in Britain, will become more and more intolerable and might become intolerable to Labour and Conservative Members if their vote should decline below that threshold under which they would obtain the sort of representation that they have had in recent times in the House. Perhaps then the light will dawn upon some hon. Members.
I hope that in future we shall have a Speaker's Conference that will determine boundaries based upon communities and a new voting system that will overcome the gross anomalies that presently exist and stop debates such as this in which dissatisfied Members want to reject the Boundary Commission's proposals, but cannot do so because of the basic inequality and unsatisfactory nature of the system with which the boundary commissioners are having to operate.
§ Sir Charles Fletcher-Cooke (Darwen)
I have a suspicion that even when that tremendous day comes and the new boundaries and new large constituencies are produced, there will still be considerable dissatisfaction. There always is dissatisfaction because a boundary draws a line that somebody does not like. Therefore, when I hear of all the dreadful ways in which the boundary commissioners have operated the rules on this occasion, I say to myself that if they had operated them differently there would have been equal if not more dissatisfaction, although perhaps coming from different mouths.
§ Mr. Tom Ellis (Wrexham)
May I draw attention to the fact that under the multi-Member system, once having 187 established the boundaries, there is no further need to change them? One need only alter the number of Members.
§ Sir Charles Fletcher-Cooke
I should have thought that there was a need to change them in many circumstances but I do not want to deal with the future at the moment because we have quite enough to do with the present.
The present position of single-Member constituencies is such that there is always criticism of the boundary commissioners. Given the rather muddled rules that the boundary commissioners have been given by the House, they have done as well as possible. The chief criticism that has emerged from the debate—one that was eloquently deployed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon)—is that the Boundary Commission takes much too long. It started its work in 1976 and it reported in 1983. Apart from my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison), who suggested the use of computers, nobody has made any suggestions. I dare say that computers would help, but a much better suggestion for reducing the period from six to two years without any loss of time for inquiries, criticisms and the rest, is to make the Boundary Commission full-time. If the Boundary Commission did not consist of three distinguished gentlemen all of whom have a full day's work to do elsewhere, instead of taking six years it could easily take two years. I am not saying that I would disapprove of a High Court judge as chairman. I welcome that. Whether he be a Liberal candidate or not he is an admirable chairman. However, I do not see why he cannot be taken off judicial duties to do a rather more speedy job on the Boundary Commission. I do not see why his assistants cannot be taken off their duties in order to do a quicker job. In almost every other country where the job is farmed out to an independent commission its members are full-time and they can report in as short a time as six months in some places. That is where the great criticism comes. By the time the Boundary Commission reports, the figures have already begun to look ludicrous in many cases. The example of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham is not ludicrous but horrifying. Therefore, why not have a full-time commission? That is my suggestion for the solution or partial solution of the problem. I do not mean that a full-time commission should sit all the time; I mean a full-time commission each time one is necessary. It could do the job in two years or less.
§ Sir Charles Fletcher-Cooke
Perhaps with more staff, but I am not sure whether that is necessary. However, if more staff are necessary, so be it. It would, in many ways, be cheaper in the end.
As is known, I have an interest to declare, and that is that my constituency is being chopped into four parts and the four bleeding chunks have been thrown to the neighbours, one of whom is my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State. That is a cause of great sorrow to me and to my constituency. The constituency is almost exactly 100 years old. The first Member was the great-grandfather of my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Cranborne) who won by five votes. Ever since then it has had a distinguished career. It has produced a great sense of identity and the numbers are such that there 188 is no reason why it should disappear. At present, the constituency has about 75,000 electors, of whom about 15,000 will inevitably go into greater Manchester because it straddles the county boundary. That leaves 60,000 electors in the county of Lancashire—just about the quota.
Why is the constituency not being retained? It is one of the caprices of this situation that it cannot be retained because it has to be used as a pool to make up other constituencies. No argument about legitimacy, time or sense of community makes any difference. The reason is that the commissioners started in the north of the county and worked their way down to the south. By the time they came to the south, to my constituency, there was nothing else they could do except use it as a pool or a reservoir. If they had started in the south and worked their way up to the north, or even started in the east and worked their way to the west, this would never have happened. Of course, they had to start somewhere. At the end of the day, a constituency had to be used as a pool or reservoir and it is too bad that it happened to be the Darwen division of Lancashire. I believe that there is a good deal of strength in that argument. That would have happened whichever way the commissioners had worked.
It is a capricious result. The caprice should be taken on board. I do not blame the commissioners for doing this. There was nothing else that they could do. They had to start somewhere and, when they came to the end of their work, they had to find a reservoir. To the great sorrow of this century-old constituency, which had a feeling that it was losing its identity every time a change was made in the boundaries, it is the sufferer. All I can do is say that it is a very great shame.
§ Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)
I will be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I know that other colleagues wish to catch your eye. I shall attempt not to enter into any special pleading about my constituency as there has already been a certain amount of that, which I fully understand. I will lose 12,000 of my electors. I am sorry to see them go. I have enjoyed being able to represent that part of my constituency which is now to be handed on as a pool to another constituency, but that is the way of the world with Boundary Commissions.
I wish to say two things in general and then make three specific points. First, I think it is right that someone should take to task the remarks of the hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) who seemed to be implying an unpleasant and unreasonable criticism of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. It seemed to me to be very uncharacteristic of him and, I thought, most unfair. When, in fact, challenged by my right hon. Friend, the hon. Gentleman seemed to try to slide out of it and yet still leave the slur. I should like to nail that slur which, I believe, was unjustified and wrong. That should be said.
Secondly, I am somewhat worried, although I do not know whether it is part of the Boundary Commission debate, about the number of hon. Members who seemed to have slipped in advocacy of a proportional system of voting. I wish to say to them that, on the whole, they have a vested interest in it. When the hon. Member for Thornaby (Mr. Wrigglesworth) said that he thought that every vote should have an equal value in this House, I wondered whether he had cast his mind back to those who 189 had voted for him at the general election. I do not think that any of them voted for him to be an SDP Member, so I am not certain how he was able to calm his conscience.
§ Mr. Tom Ellis
I wish only to draw the attention of the hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) to the fact that when my hon. Friend the Member for Thornaby (Mr. Wrigglesworth) was a member of the Labour party, he was a member of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform.
§ Sir Peter Emery
I do not mind that at all. It does not make any difference. I say to those who wish to tinker with the British constitution and our parliamentary system that they should point out another parliamentary democratic structure in the world that works better than Westminster. When they can do so, I will begin to think about changing our present system. Until they can do that, for goodness' sake let us keep what we have and not tinker around with it, since that would be likely to make it worse than it is at present.
I wish to make three specific points. No hon. Member speaking today has done other than sweep under the carpet the completely illogical representation of Wales and Scotland in the House. I think it right that that position should be put forward. Perhaps some people can justify it, but it should not be hidden. The electoral quota for England is 65,963. The electoral quota for Wales is 55,660 and for Scotland, 52,904. Therefore, if one uses the English electoral quota for Wales, instead of having an increase of two to 38 Members, Wales would have 31½ Members—let us be generous and say 32 Members. Wales will thus have six Members more than it would normally qualify for. If Scotland used the English electoral quota, it would have 58 seats and not the 72 seats including the one extra that it is being given. Thus, Scotland has 14 seats more than would be the case if the same electoral quota as applies to England were used. If one puts that into percentages—percentages are a nice way of making the matter appear easier—Wales has 18 per cent. more seats than is justified and Scotland 24 per cent. more seats than is justified. Perhaps some people will turn back to the Act of Union 1706 to justify that position. I find that to be historically a long way off and I wonder how long we have to keep on with it.
The second specific matter to which I wish to refer is the problem of the organisational structure. Many Members have talked about this, not least my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Darwen (Sir C. Fletcher-Cooke), my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) and my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon). There really is something wrong when we are to pass tomorrow an order which is 1,435,000 electors out of date. That is because we are having to use the 1976 register when we already know that the 1982 register, let alone the 1983 register, would have increased the numbers of electors by 1.4 million.
The interesting fact, which has not been pointed out, is that that has had a specific effect. If one has examined, as I have, the three different types of constituency, and the increase and decrease of the electorate within those constituencies, one finds that of the London constituencies, 32 increase their electorate but 52 experience a decrease in electorate. Eighty metropolitan constituencies have increased electorates, but 49 have decreased electorates. In the county seats, 288 have increased 190 electorates, some of which are major increases. A number of them have increased by 10,000 or even 15,000—for example, South-West Cambridgeshire by 9,000, Peterborough by 15,000, Warrington, South by 14,000, Billericay by 10,000, Basingstoke by 11,000, East Hampshire by 11,000, The Wrekin by 11,000 and Horsham by 12,000.
§ Sir Peter Emery
I knew that my hon. Friend intended to speak and I did not wish to steal his thunder. Only 22 county seats show a decrease. Most of them are urban, such as the two Bristol seats. That means that, even before we introduce the new Boundary Commission proposals, we shall favour the urban rather than the county areas. Once again, county districts will find themselves underrepresented while urban areas will be over-represented.
Should we not do something to ensure that when we adopt a Boundary Commission report we do not do so on figures that are seven or eight years out of date? My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Darwen suggested, and Parliament must insist, that when another Boundary Commission is appointed it must report within two years of being set up.
One suggestion is that we establish a full-time Boundary Commission. The use of computers and computer sciences should considerably assist that. The drawing of graphs and boundaries that can now be done on a computer could not have happened 10 or 15 years ago. Has anyone considered a statutory rolling commission that would deal with one part of the country at a time, within a one-year or two-year period, and then move on to another part? That would mean a permanent uprating, which would be better than the delays of perhaps 18 or 20 years that can happen with the figures that are being applied to the recommendations.
I agree—although I do not like doing so—with the view expressed by a number of Opposition Members, especially the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) to the effect that, in giving our directions to the boundary commissioners, we should ask them to come much nearer to the arithmetical average than they have done in the present recommendations. There are six or eight seats with under 40,000 electors, with an equal number with more than 80,000 or 85,000 electors. There must be something wrong with our structure.
Surely it is not so terrible to hop across county boundaries when putting together a constituency. As the hon. Member for Honiton, I once represented not only east Devon but a large ward of Exeter. That was taken away in the last review. It made Exeter a rather safer Conservative seat. However, it would have been more a part of community representation for me to have represented part of the west side of Dorset, which has a greater community factor within my constituency, than part of Exeter and east Devon. Why is it so strange to cross county boundaries provided that the community structure of a constituency is seriously considered? We must reconsider our thinking about the directions given about crossing county boundaries only as a last resort. Indeed, I understand that that has not happened at all in these recommendations.
I hope that the Home Secretary and his Department will ensure that the recommendations and views put forward in 191 the debate are seriously considered before any major steps are taken to establish another Boundary Commission. That is important, and if it happens, the debate will have been of some use.
§ 8.6 pm
§ Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)
It is good for a Scottish Member to follow the hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery). There is a certain anomaly between his pleading that Scotland is over-represented while also saying that because of the population changes since 1966, urban areas in England are over-represented compared with county areas. That is one—although not the only—reason why Scotland has over-representation. It has large, remote rural areas that are sparsely populated and are, of necessity, seats of low population.
I have not studied the proposals of the Boundary Commission for England, but the smallest seats in Scotland are Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles, with electorates of 22,000 and 24,000 respectively. They are the smallest constituencies in Britain. I do not think that any hon. Member would argue that they should not each have an individual Member of Parliament to represent them. They are unique as a geographical part of our nation. It would be impossible for any hon. Member to represent one of the large mainland areas—for example, Inverness—and also the Western Isles, or to represent Caithness and Sutherland and also Orkney and Shetland. That is one reason why the Boundary Commission for Scotland is separate. It must take account of the large, remote, sparsely populated areas that require separate representation.
We are all indulging in special pleading for our seats. The hon. Member for Honiton instinctively expects rural areas to be Tory and urban areas to be Labour. In Scotland, the smaller seats are not so represented—for example, the Border area is represented by the Liberals, Caithness and Sutherland by the SDP, Orkney and Shetland by the Liberals and the Western Isles by the SNP. None of the small rural seats are represented by Conservatives. But nearer to the mainland and the main centres of population, rural areas are represented by Tories. Scotland shows a different picture from the remainder of the United Kingdom.
I do not wish to delve into the history of the Act of Union. Conservative Members should remember that, although it was called the Act of Union, it was a treaty of union between two separate sovereign Parliaments. The Scottish people agreed to give up their rights to a separate Parliament and come to this place on the basis of a certain representation and on retaining some separate identity both in this place and in Scotland.
Therefore, while we have a separate Scottish Office, separate Scottish legislation and a separate Scottish group in Parliament and in the United Kingdom, Scotland must have its own Boundary Commission and its own way of working out the number of Members of Parliament who will represent it in this House. If the hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) is prepared to demolish the Scottish Boundary Commission, he has to go the rest of the way and demolish the Scottish Office, absorb the Scottish Departments into the United Kingdom ones and watch his own party being wiped out for ever in Scotland. It is entirely up to him.
Although the two winding-up speeches will be given by Scottish Members of Parliament, I am the only Scot to 192 have spoken in the debate so far. I should like to make it clear that, although I have been affected detrimentally by the way in which the boundaries have been allocated in Glasgow, I believe that the Scottish Boundary Commission has done an excellent job.
The original proposals for Glasgow were utterly wrong. It was proposed to have 10 rather than 11 seats. That was changed because of the, representations made. I compliment the assistant commissioner who was appointed to conduct the local inquiry in Glasgow—Mr. Prosser—on the job that he did. He listened to the representations and the legal case that we made.
The legal basis of our case was that the population of Glasgow, although declining, was not a factor that could be taken into account. We said that it was not possible to make 10 seats in Glasgow on the basis of population figures for 1989 rather than 1979. The boundary commissioners must work on the basis of the figures when they start their investigations, not on the basis of some future population trend. They accepted that argument and re-allocated the seats in Glasgow so that there are now 11. They include the three Strathclyde regional seats. That is much fairer.
It so happens that the commission did not accept my suggested 11 seats for Glasgow. That does not matter. The fact remains that the commissioners listened to the representations, gave us a fair hearing and, in the end, came down on the side of justice. I might lose marginally, but I shall still win the revised seat of Glasgow, Cathcart. at the next general election.
There have been criticisms of the English Boundary Commission. I want to make it clear that, on the whole, the Scottish Boundary Commission has done a good job. However, that does not mean that there are no points of principle that should be raised.
The Home Secretary raised one such point. He said that the House should have no right to amend the details, of what the Boundary Commission does. I do not disagree, but it should not still be provided by statute that the Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for Wales and the Secretary of State for Scotland can in theory—they may not in practice—amend Boundary Commission reports. I do not know whether the Minister disagrees. I know that in practice it is highly unlikely that they will do that, but it is wrong that they have the right to do so. They are political animals and part and parcel of the political structure. If it is wrong for the House to have the power to amend Boundary Commission reports, it is equally wrong for members of the Government to have that power.
We should explore how to make Boundary Commissions organs of the House rather than organs of the Home Office, the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Secretary of State for Wales. They should be appointed by the House, obviously on the nomination of Ministers, and report to the House. Perhaps senior Back Benchers, who have served in Government, who are respected on both sides of the House and who are given jobs in the House, could be used in a Boundary Commission role so that the commissions are taken out of the direct political control of the Government. I do not know whether that view will be widely accepted, but we should bear it in mind.
I should like to link my point about Boundary Commissions' time scale with the way in which Boundary Commissions work. One of the problems that the Boundary Commission for Scotland faces is that the local government Boundary Commissions meet and make 193 decisions before the parliamentary Boundary Commission starts work. I do not know enough about England to say that that is true for England as well. That system is the wrong way round.
The hands of the Scottish parliamentary Boundary Commission were tied. It rightly set itself the rule of operating as far as possible within local government boundaries. It found that because the local government Boundary Commission had already made its decisions, it was forced to work on the basis of those decisions. The parliamentary Boundary Commission should not operate in that way.
There should be one Boundary Commission. It should be full time and have a full-time staff that is much larger than that which it now has. It should examine the totality of government at all levels and decide the boundaries accordingly. It could then work within the three tiers in Scotland—the districts, the regions and the parliamentary constituencies. In Scotland, the regions were dealt with first. The districts were sorted out second and the parliamentary constituencies were decided last. That process has distorted everything.
There is also a small anomaly with regard to population changes that makes some impact on my argument about having one Boundary Commission. On examination of the rules, it emerges that local boundary commissioners are allowed to take population trends into account. They are allowed to examine forecasts and use forecasters. Although parliamentary boundary commissioners do so as well, they are prevented from doing so by statute. One of the arguments in Glasgow was that commissioners do not have the right to make forecasts they must take account of the population as it is when they start work.
Because local government boundary commissioners are allowed to make forecasts and parliamentary boundary commissioners are not, although they are tied to the findings of the local government boundary commissioners, the anomaly gets even worse. There is, therefore, a good case for creating one Boundary Commission that covers all areas. It should be a full-time job with a full-time staff that draws people from the local areas concerned.
Everyone in Scotland knows that the establishment that deals with these matters is Edinburgh-based and that most Edinburgh people know damn all about Glasgow. Boundary commissioners tend to be Edinburgh people, who do not know the localities or how people operate in Glasgow. We put that point to the inquiry and it agreed with us. People from local government who know local areas should be seconded to the Boundary Commission to work full-time on that subject for two or three years.
The operations of the Boundary Commission are another example of the lip service this country pays to democracy. We want it on the cheap. We expect the Boundary Commission to do its job on the cheap, like everybody else. That is not the way to do it.
In theory, the commission's reports could be through the House this week and through the other place within a fortnight and the Prime Minister could call an election on those boundaries three weeks later. As political organisations are part and parcel of democratic life, that is not right. Opposition Members are suspicious that the boundary reports are being pushed through the House with undue haste to clear the ground so that there can be an 194 election in June. My view is that there will not be a general election in June, but the Government have control over the matter. When it comes to the boundaries and the way in which Parliament operates, the Government should not have that control. Parliament should write it into statute that once the Boundary Commission reports are passed by both Houses there should be a three or six-month period—it is open to discussion how long it should be—before its recommendations can be implemented so that local government, returning officers and political parties can become organised.
We tend to ignore political parties in our constitution but they are part and parcel of our life. The Government should not be given the power to manipulate boundary commission changes for their own purposes. The House should seriously consider whether a time lag can be established between the Boundary Commission reports being passed by the House and their being implemented.
I have deliberately not strayed far into the details of my constituency changes, which are not to my benefit. However, I congratulate the Scottish Boundary Commission on the job that it has done, even if English Members believe that it is wrong. We believe that it is right, although it is not to the benefit of the Labour party. All parties will probably finish at much the same level as now.
§ Sir David Price (Eastleigh)
I apologise to the House for not having been present for the opening speeches. I was on the Select Committee on Transport interrogating Sir David Serpell and his colleagues on his well-known report. As about 4,000 of my constituents depend on the future of British Rail, the House will understand that I have had a double duty to-day. Further, it is St. David's day, so I shall be generous to the House by being brief.
It is clear—this has emerged in all the speeches that I have heard—that arithmetic and equity require that there should be periodic reviews of the size of constituencies. It is equally right that such review should be conducted by people outside of the hurly burly of day-to-day political life. I was interested in some of the proposals of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton). Such reviews should not be conducted too frequently. Equally, there should not be a long lapse of years between them, because of the continuous alteration in the distribution of our population. Those guiding principles are at the heart of our current legislation. That is why I shall have no difficulty in supporting the motions tomorrow and Thursday to implement the reviews.
However, I have several criticisms and suggestions to make. The first criticism is that under this review the number of parliamentary seats within the United Kingdom is to be increased from 635 to 650, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) said. There are too many hon. Members here already, but not in constituency terms. Many constituencies are too big. However, in terms of the life of the House there are too many hon. Members. That is reflected in motions on the Order Paper about shortage of accommodation, in the frustration of hon. Members who are unable to get called to speak in debates and by the many hon. Members who have oral questions on the paper that are never reached.
How we reduce our numbers is a different matter. Implicit in the report of the Boundary Commission is an 195 increase in the membership. That is the ratchet effect well described on page 6 of the English report. I will not quote it because hon. Members are aware of it.
§ Dr. Edmund Marshall
Am I not right in thinking that in centuries past the membership of the House of Commons was far greater than it is now?
§ Sir David Price
The Library gave me a stack of figures as to the variation in the membership of the House over many years. Possibly in the days to which the hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) is referring, membership was not regarded as conscientiously as it is today. There is a conflict between the number of hon. Members who make this a good working House on the one hand, and the number of constituents that it is reasonable to ask a Member to represent. I believe that in England we could survive with constituencies of 80,000. I represent 96,000 electors. I am happy to continue doing so. The fact is that the Boundary Commission will not let me do it, which I resent.
My second criticism is the length of time the review takes. Seven years is far too long. Every hon. Member who has spoken has referred to this fact, and something must be done about it. The electorate in my constituency has increased by 14,000 over the past seven years—20 per cent. Under the new arrangements, my electorate will be 84,000.
My third criticism is the inadequate attention given in the rules to the expected growth of population.
My fourth criticism is the obsession of the English Commission with the pure numbers game. I disagree with the Labour Front Bench Members on the basis of their unsuccessful legal action. It is the community which matters, not sheer numbers. I point to the Boundary Commission's sensible proposals to leave the Isle of Wight with an over-large electorate—it is not large enough to warrant two constituencies—rather than carving a bit off the island and sticking it on to something on the mainland.
Some of the commission's more eccentric proposals lie in the procedures that it follows. It does not give reasons for its findings in public inquiries, which is wrong. The hon. Member for Cathcart referred to the inadequacy of our in-house parliamentary procedures for dealing with the commission's reports. The fact that the commission's proposals cannot be altered makes no sense. I accept that the Government should have no power to make such alterations, but the House as a whole should be able to do so.
In the next Parliament—we do not have time to do it now—a Select Committee should be invited to study the workings of the Boundary Commission and the underlying legislation, and to make to the House recommendations for improvement. Many of the proposals made during this debate could be raw material for that Select Committee. Meanwhile, we must live with the eccentricities of the Commission's proposals. I hope that the voters who feel electorally disoriented by those eccentricities will take comfort from the words of the late A. G. Macdonell:Those whose lives are occupied in combating the eccentricities of God regard as very small beer the eccentricities of man.
§ Mr. Tom Ellis (Wrexham)
I apologise to the House for not having been here until an hour ago, but, with the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Sir D. Price), I have been in Committee.
196 The hon. Gentleman spoke about the eccentricities in the findings of the Boundary Commission. However, they are far fewer than I expected because the boundary commissioners of England, Scotland and Wales were given an impossible task—to devise a fair and accurate system of representation—which cannot be carried out in the present system. Therefore, I sympathise with them in their task, and I am surprised that many more eccentricities have not resulted from their attempts to square the circle.
The hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) said that our constitution was probably the finest in the world, and he is entitled to that view. However, many British people would say that our constitution, at least compared with the constitutions of the leading western industrialised nations, is probably one of the least satisfactory because of its representation arrangements. Many consequences flow from the lack of proper representation. I refer to both the unfairnesses and the statistics, which are important, and to the political consequences of that representation, which are profound.
We are proud of our unwritten constitution. It is a gentleman's agreement that is denied to lesser breeds. It is built on the solid foundation of the sovereignty of Parliament, which can do anything. We can turn man into woman and black into white. What Parliament says goes. We are unconstrained because we have no written constitution, no supreme court, no federal structure, no separation of powers, and not even delegates to a purely representative assembly. For that to be justified. it is important that society feels that it is truly represented in the House of Commons, which has become the dominant part of Parliament.
If society does not feel that it is truly represented in the House, the system begins to crumble. The most obvious feature of that crumbling is that the House ha become dichotomised. On one side there are angels, who wear haloes and can do no wrong, and on the other side are devils, who have horns and can do no right. Whatever one side does, the other side will undo when it is in power. That principle stems from the lack of proper representation.
An example was given by the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) a few weeks ago. He looked at the constituencies in this country and the rate of unemployment in each constituency. He took the best 100 and the worst 100, the 100 with the least unemployment and the 100 with the most unemployment. In the best constituencies there were four Labour MPs; the rest were Conservatives. In the worst constituencies there was one Conservative MP
To me it seems quite clear that representation in this Chamber is profoundly wrong. The right hon. Gentleman's exercise, I should have thought, showed that the country is becoming two nations territorially in a way that Disraeli would never have thought of. In the half of the country south of a line from Bristol drawn due east, leaving out Greater London, all but 11 of the 154 seats are held by Conservatives. In the north, the reverse applies. That is a classic example of the consequences of the electoral system.
The boundary commissioners are given the task of trying somehow to devise an arrangement of constituencies among the electorate to correct those trends, and the plain fact of the matter is that it is impossible. When, for example, a Conservative voter in the Rhondda valley or a Labour voter in Bournemouth casts a vote, he or she 197 knows that as far as representation is concerned it is a waste of time. It is simply a registration of the fact that in the Rhondda valley there is a Conservative voter and in Bournemouth there is a Labour voter. For the representation of Bournemouth and the Rhondda valley, the whole thing is a nonsense.
I have taken advantage of an opportunity that presented itself to me on coming into the House when it was not very full, and I will be brief. I plead with the House to begin to get to grips seriously with the British constitution, starting with the key to reform, which would lead to all kinds of consequential reforms. That, quite clearly, is the electoral system. When we talk about the Boundary Commissions we should be talking much more fundamentally about the system rather than the nuts and bolts that the commissioners are having to tighten up to try to make the whole machine work.
§ Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)
The hon. Member for Wrexham (Mr. Ellis), like his hon. Friends, has deployed arguments which are, perhaps, more in favour of reform of the electoral system than of reform of the system of deciding what the boundaries of constituencies should be. I believe that the issues can be and should be looked at quite separately. If we were to add political criteria to those that the Boundary Commissions have to take into account we would end up with some very subjective and undersirable results indeed.
I am perhaps one of the few Members contributing to this debate who is entirely unaffected by the boundary report. I hope, therefore, that my comments will be taken as being fairly objective. My constituency of Chichester is bounded on the whole of the western side and across the north by county borders and can clearly not be enlarged in those areas without transgressing county borders. Indeed, although my electorate is substantial—in 1976 it was over 72,000 and on the latest electorate basis it is over 77,000—my boundaries are to stay the same. I am very pleased about this, particularly as my constituency is contiguous with the boundaries of the local authority.
I would like to argue, however, and I hope the House will find my arguments telling, that my electorate should be even larger, that constituencies should be significantly larger and the number of MPs consequently fewer. I believe that there is a compelling case for amending the rules provided for in the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1949 to ensure that the quota which is applied in deciding the size and number of constituencies is increased significantly. I shall set out the reasons why I think this is necessary in a minute.
The electoral population of England is just under 34 million. That figure divided by 516, the present number of constituencies, gives the much-quoted average of 65,753. I believe that that is now too low and that we could all manage and represent significantly larger constituencies.
It is undesirable that successive boundary reviews should result in an increase in the number of Members of Parliament. Indeed, it seems to be one of the few growth businesses in this country. I believe that the electorate is over-represented in terms of the number of Members. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Sir D. Price) pointed out, there are structural and physical constraints 198 on the extent to which Members can be accommodated and the facilities provided here for them properly to represent their constituents.
Application of the quota rule has led to an undesirable increase in the number of seats. Some of the reasons for that are set out in the report and the commission admits that the rules may produce an inbuilt tendency to increase the number of seats. First, rule 6 allows more seats than the straight quota basis would provide to be established for geographical reasons. We all accept that, but as the increased number of seats is then used in subsequent reviews as the basis for deciding the quota, there is an inbuilt compounding of the increase in successive reviews. Secondly, under rule 5, the number of seats in an area is not rounded up but is chosen to keep as close to the quota as possible. That again results in a natural tendency for the number of seats to increase.
Insufficient attention has been given to the reason why a figure was laid down in the 1949 Act as the desirable number of seats in the House of Commons. We do not consider carefully enough whether that is the right number in the light of changing conditions. I believe that it should be substantially smaller. In determining the number of parliamentary seats we should adopt the criterion of the smallest number consistent with the present quality of representation.
The finest attribute of this House and the one of which I am most proud is the ability of any Member to take up an issue affecting the lowliest of his constituents with the highest authority in the land, be it the Prime Minister or a Secretary of State, receive a reply signed by that authority in a very short time and send it back with comments to the constituents concerned. Few countries can boast such an up-to-down system of democracy and representation in which the person at the bottom can obtain a detailed reply from the person at the top on a specific issue. That, above all, is a quality that we should preserve, and I believe that we can preserve it even if the average size of constituencies is substantially increased.
In my view, it would be desirable to adopt a quota of perhaps 100,000 rather than just over 57,000. Certainly, I believe that many Members would find a quota of 80,000 appropriate. Many constituencies, including my own, already have that number of electors and some, such as the Isle of Wight, will have more than 94,000, even under the present proposals. As constituencies with that number of electors are already proposed, it is not beyond the bounds of practicability to adopt the quota that I suggest and, for reasons that I shall explain, I believe that that would be positively desirable. If one were, however, to work to a figure of about 80,000 as the quota, being the number of constituents which a Member of Parliament could reasonably be expected to represent adequately, responsibly, carefully and to their satisfaction, as I believe happens in many constituencies throughout the country, then we would have a much smaller, much more efficient and much more productive legislature.
It is possible to re-assess the quota and substantially to reduce the number of Members of Parliament because improvements in modern technology make this much more feasible than when the matter was considered in 1949. The improved efficiency of telephones, higher standards of literacy throughout the country and efficiency and availability of transport mean that people are much better able to put their views succinctly and quickly to Members of Parliament who are, in their turn, much more able to 199 respond to them than was the case in the past. More modern inventions such as word processors and the much used photocopier mean that we are and should be able to deal with substantially higher numbers of constituents than was the case 40 years ago.
Such a change would be welcome because it would increase productivity, something that is very much in line with what the Government want. It would be self-financing because for every Member whose job was lost the salary and support system given to him would be available for those who remained. It would result in less legislation, less filling of the Order Paper and lower overall costs—all desirable objectives.
I do not see this in isolation. It would be possible for such a restructuring of quotas to reduce significantly the number of Members only if we were at the same time to improve the quality and availability of assistance to them. Every Member should have one first-class secretary, one first-class research assistant and half an administrator. I do not believe we should have more than that, but were we to have that we could adequately represent the size of constituency that I propose and the expense could easily be met by significant reductions in the number of hon. Members and their associated costs.
§ Mr. Keith Best (Anglesey)
Does my hon. Friend not think it a great shame that many of us who agree with him that we should have these minimum facilities have at present to rely on American research assistants simply because they come to us free? Would it not be better if we were able to employ British people and to pay them to do a full-time job as research assistants?
§ Mr. Nelson
It is patently absurd, and I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The answer lies in our hands and I hope that we will act on it sooner rather than later. I do not wish, however, to stray too far down that path.
A reduction in the number of constituencies would result in the advantage of fewer cross-county constituencies. The problem would arise less often because there would be fewer constituencies. Where the county boundaries were crossed, the problem might be larger in the sense that the constituency would be larger but I do not think that would necessarily create more problems for individual Members than is the case at the moment, where there are many more constituencies which will cross county borders. There are, too, the physical constraints, the extent to which we can accommodate in the Houses of Parliament an ever-increasing number of representatives.
There would be, of course, personal disadvantages with which the public would have less sympathy than might Members of Parliament. The "dog eat dog" attitude towards the prospect of a reduction in the number of seats would be unedifying and would no doubt create some difficulties were such a change to be introduced. That is a personal difficulty for Members of Parliament which we ought to be able to suffer if it is decided overall that it is in the interests of the country not to have an ever-increasing number of constituencies.
I also accept the valid point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) that certain parts of the country, such as the north of Scotland, vary geographically and that such a proposal as mine might result in quite unacceptable sizes of constituency. I am therefore prepared to accept that there is a case for certain. 200 variations on a geographical basis. They are already provided for under the existing rules and can be taken into account by the commission.
I strongly believe that the present rules are greatly outdated, that there are already too many Members of Parliament, and that we should improve our productivity, reduce the cost of the legislature and seek to increase the size of constituencies because we are well able, with modern technology, so to do. There should at the earliest opportunity be a Speaker's Conference to consider this. We have had enough opportunities in debates on the issue over the years to say that the time has come for a change and that we hope that as soon as possible a Speaker's Conference will come forward with a larger quota and therefore a smaller number of proposed seats for the House of Commons. That would do both the legislature and the electorate a great service.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)
I intended to detain the House for only a few moments, but the Hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) may have extended my speech. He half convinced me of his case. There are grounds for a Speaker's Conference to add a new rule. It would not be a new rule which the hon. Gentleman had in mind, but his speech suggested that it may be worth considering. It is that, in addition to the consideration o physical boundaries and population in determining the size of a constituency, intensity of need should be taken into account. Given the hon. Gentleman's dissertation, the south of England does not seem to need so many Members of Parliament as the north.
My constituency has well over 100,000 electors. The hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr, Waller) contested my constituency twice in 1974, so he will appreciate my remarks. It is a large constituency with an enormous electorate. It has severe problems, which have multiplied enormously since 1979. We are riot part of the affluent belt of southern England where Members of Parliament can be part-timers pursuing business or legal interests for much of the working day. We in south Yorkshire have to be full-time Members of Parliament.
If we allow constituencies to experience 30 per cent. unemployment, industrial dereliction and the wasting of our local economy, we should ensure that Meml5ers of Parliament have the staffing to which the hon. Member for Chichester referred. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Best), who suggested that we should not rely on American assistants. I make'it clear that I have not had one and do not want one. It would be unfair on my constituents, given 30 per cent. unemployment, if some of the work were farmed out to an unpaid American researcher. That matter should be seriously examined by the House.
I do not suggest that the boundary commissioners have not acted properly with regard to the county of south Yorkshire. They have looked at the matter carefully. If all hearings were conducted with such careful and considerate cordiality as one I attended in Rotherham, the country would be well served. While the boundaries for south Yorkshire county were scrupulously and properly observed, other county boundaries were not. Thal factor should be borne in mind in any future consideration.
My main concern is that, while the commissioners have acted properly, the Government, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) suggested, 201 seem to have acted with unseemly haste. Before the words of the court had finished echoing, the papers were already printed and available in the Vote Office and constituencies are being changed. Mine is being changed dramatically. My large constituency is being made into the whole of one adequately sized constituency and the greater part of another. That will mean the termination of relationships. The Government seem to be completely insensitive to the fact that politics in Britain is as much about relationships as about anything else. The relationships within politics in many constituencies in south Yorkshire will be hurriedly scrapped and made redundant or changed. Little time is being given for new relationships to be forged.
I am not speaking only about people in my own party. I am thinking of people such as the Conservative agent in the Rother Valley constituency, Mrs. Matthews, whom the hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough will recall with respect and affection; she has given a lifetime of service to the constituency and suddenly she will have to pick up the pieces of two constituencies. I am thinking, too, of my own agent, Councillor Cooper, whom the hon. Member will also recall. Councillor Cooper has given legendary service to politics in south Yorkshire. He will have the task of building new relationships within a very short time. He will have to try to achieve in weeks the sort of organisation which it has taken him 27 or 28 years to build up.
The Government have acted with terrible insensitivity. It is the same sort of insensitivity which the hon. Member for Chichester displayed in playing a slide rule game to suggest that we dispose of large numbers of Members of Parliament. If many Members are disposed of in the north of England there will be much regret. Constituents find it difficult to get work; what would happen if large numbers of Members of Parliament entered the labour market, heaven only knows. Certainly they would not wish to join the hon. Member for Chichester in the more affluent parts of the south of England which he can represent part-time.
§ Mr. Nelson
I cannot let the hon. Gentleman get away with that. I think he will accept that I am a full-time Member of Parliament.
§ Mr. Hardy
I am delighted to hear it. I only wish that many of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues on the Conservative Benches could say the same.
It is regrettable that the change in parliamentary constituencies is taking place so hurriedly. I recognise that change is necessary. I could not have expected the work of my devoted secretary or the enormous diligence of my wife to continue permanently in a constituency the size of that which I now serve, with its unemployment and economic problems. Change is necessary in the larger constituencies of the industrial north. Even with the burdens we face, it would have been acceptable for all hon. Members to have a little more time to build new relationships and to construct the new constituency structures on a non-partisan basis. I am talking about all the political life in such constituencies. We are not being given enough time. The haste is unseemly and sensitivity has been lacking.
§ Mr. Gary Waller (Brighouse and Spenborough)
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Rother Valley 202 (Mr. Hardy), for whom I have had great respect ever since I fought him at the two general elections in 1974 to which he referred.
The system for reviewing parliamentary boundaries in the United Kingdom is infinitely preferable to that in other countries. Anyone who doubts this should compare our approach, which involves commissioners who, so far as I know, have not been accused, in England at least, of favouring one party to the detriment of another, to that which applies in the United States, where the redistribution process is in the hands of the state legislatures. Elections which take place in the states before redistribution have a special significance because the state legislatures, depending on their political control, can exercise enormous influence. The charge of gerrymandering can often be laid at the door of American parties. This is not the case with our commissioners. There are not many institutions that we often shout about. Perhaps we ought to do so more often. We have a system of which we can be proud, although improvements can and should be devised.
The commissioners expected to take at least three years over the review. In the event they took seven, a period which is described in chapter 1, paragraph 13, of the report asmuch longer than we had anticipated".This raises the question whether the procedure does not have too many inherent delays built into it. Those who suspect that this is the case should read the excellent pamphlet entitled "The Great Boundaries Scandal" which was written by Mr. Ian Clarke and published in 1979. He proposed that there should be reviews after every general election, which should be limited to local authority areas where parliamentary entitlement had changed, and would be mandatory only in areas which contained also at least one seat 25 per cent. bigger or smaller than average. A number of hon. Members have made similar suggestions.
The present review for England reveals the undesirable effect of long-drawn-out reviews. The table on page 147 of the report for England shows that of the new constituencies only 45 were 10 per cent. or more above the electoral quota based on the 1976 figures, but that on 1982 figures the number had risen to 60. It is an enormous improvement on the position relating to the existing constituencies, where the equivalent figure is 159, but it is not as good as it might be.
If one considers the new constituencies which are below the electoral quota for one reason or another, whereas 12 varied by 20 per cent. or more from the ideal in 1976, that figure was already 21 by 1982. Thus we see how demographic changes date the work of redistribution. In that light, the proposals by Mr. Clarke in the pamphlet to which I have referred deserve serious consideration even though we should recognise that they have disadvantages as well as advantages.
Most of the publicity relating to the changes has centred on the Labour party's legal challenges to them. It seems to me that the courts rightly established that no case had been made out that the commission's recommendations should be rejected because they offended against the rules under which the commission is required to operate. The Labour party's intention was clearly to delay the implementation of the changes until after the next general election in the hope of party advantage.
Nevertheless, the fact that the intention was not one that everyone would describe as honourable, should not 203 prevent us from examining the criticisms. As it happens, some of my conclusions were not dissimilar. In particular, it seems unsatisfactory that London is over-represented by having 84 seats instead of its entitlement of 80.
One might ask how that came about. It came about because the commissioners for England stuck to their rule, as stated in their explanatory booklet and reproduced on page 157 of their report:So far as is practicable, a recommended constituency must not fall across the boundary of a county or London Borough.Many of the London boroughs are relatively small and are entitled only to two seats. It is clear that the smaller the unit to be divided into constituencies, the greater the likelihood that constituencies will vary substantially from the electoral quota. Thus, we have a borough such as Kingston upon Thames which on 1976 figures had an electorate of about 105,000 and a theoretical entitlement to 1.6 seats necessitating the creation of two constituencies of less than average size. The commissioners recommended two constituencies—Kingston upon Thames with a 1976 electorate of 59,000 and Surbiton, with 46,000 only. It is interesting to note that in this case the Labour party did not object following publication of the provisional recommendations. It makes one somewhat cynical about its late attempt at a legal block, specifically objecting to the small size of the Surbiton constituency.
The rule that London borough boundaries should not be crossed resulted in a number of similar cases. London ended up eventually with a few more constituencies than it was entitled to, even though each borough received its correct entitlement. The commissioners note that they discussed this with the party organisations. It is interesting that party representatives were of the unanimous opinion that none of the London constituencies should cross borough boundaries. Why was the rule, although flexible, formulated in that way when the effects were likely to be unsatisfactory? The rule that county boundaries should not be crossed in the absence of overwhelming reasons seems sensible, but hardly any counties have fewer than half a dozen constituencies, so there is no need, in relation to the size of the electorate, to depart radically from the electoral quotas.
Presumably, when it came to London, Parliament decided that Greater London was too big a unit to consider as a whole—it had about 90 constituencies at the time—and therefore Parliament chose the only other available unit, which was the London borough. It seems now that London boroughs are too small to consider as separate units. The problem of disparities and overrepresentation of London, because of the decline in population, is likely to become even more serious in the next review unless something is done in the meantime.
However, I suggest that there are reasonable grounds for crossing borough boundaries in London where necessary. In the metropolitan district of Tyne and Wear, the commissioners found adequate reasons to cross the River Tyne and create the constituency of Tyne Bridge, linking the centres of Newcastle and Gateshead, which are two separate communities. If we consider as an example the two adjoining London boroughs of Fulham and Hammersmith, and Kensington and Chelsea, we find recommendations for four constituencies that are all under-size in terms of their 1976 electorates. If we look at the 1982 electorates, the figures are even further removed from the quota. None of them has more than 55,000 electors and one, Hammersmith, has less than 204 50,000. Chelsea has had one of the biggest drops in the size of its electorate, from 63,000 in 1976 to 53,000 in 1982. Even if the decline in the electorates in these two boroughs continues at its present rate, they may still just be entitled to two under-size constituencies each at the time of the next review rather than one very large one.
Taking the two boroughs together, even now they would be entitled to only three constituencies between them. Can we say that, while it is satisfactory to join the two communities of Newcastle and Gateshead, separated by the river Tyne and in different metropolitan districts, there are overwhelming objections to linking Chelsea and Fulham or Kensington and Hammersmith?
The decision to create the new Tyne Bridge constituency is one that I find it difficult to defend. Accepting that quota considerations made it desirable to have one constituency crossing the river border between the two districts, I cannot believe that it would not have been possible to create a much better solution that would have respected local differences and left the two city centres to themselves. This is one exception, because the Boundary Commission for England did a fairly good job in creating boundaries and achieved much better results than did its predecessor, which perhaps did not have access to adequate information. Here, I defend my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) who was attacked when he made this point earlier.
One of the outcomes of the review that is particularly unsatisfactory is the increase in the number of constituencies within the United Kingdom from 635 to 650. Parliament intended that there should be five extra constituencies in Northern Ireland, but there has also been an unintended increase of 10 constituencies, seven of which are in England. As many of my hon. Friends have already said, the number of hon. Members is already too big. I will not repeat the reasons that my hon. Friends have given, but I substantially agree with them. However, I find it difficult to imagine that the House will ever decide to reduce the number of hon. Members.
The deputy chairman of the English commission presented a helpful paper, reproduced in appendix B, which explains why rule 7, which defines the terms used, when taken in conjunction with other rulesinevitably leads, and must inevitably lead (in practical terms) to a steady, though gradual increase in the number of seats in England at each review.This cannot be allowed to continue and something must be done before the next review takes place.
The deputy chairman also pointed to the unsatisfactory way in which the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1949 laid down the minimum number of constituencies in Scotland and Wales, while setting an overall ideal number in Britain as a whole. Without any formal machinery connecting the commissions, their separate statutory requirements may be incompatible with one another.
Another look also needs to be taken at the way in which the number of seats in Scotland and Wales is established. Even allowing for the fact that the two countries should have extra representation, one notes that the electorate in Scotland has declined as a proportion of the total for Great Britain. The electoral quota in Scotland was 84 per cent. of that for England in 1954, but by 1978 it was only 80.8 per cent. Fairness demands that the matter should be reconsidered.
205 Although the commission has to abide by certain rules, it imposed other rules on itself. One was to avoid the division of wards. There were reasonable grounds for this, not least the fact that the political parties are organised in wards, but the rule had some implications that may not have been fully considered. These implications were clearly much more of a factor in Greater London and the metropolitan counties, where the wards are very much bigger than in the shire counties. Using bigger building blocks obviously leaves less flexibility in completing the structure.
Using local authority wards as a basis means that one is entirely dependent on the local government Boundary Commission to provide the building blocks. Unfortunately, the local government Boundary Commission does not appear to have anything like the resources that the parliamentary Boundary Commission has. It therefore has to operate in a very different way. Instead of initiating proposals, it is entirely dependent on local authorities, party organisations and other bodies to submit proposals, which it either accepts or rejects. I want to dwell for a moment on the local government Boundary Commission, and then relate my conclusions to the parliamentary commissioners.
Only today, I received from the local government Boundary Commission for England draft proposals for the metropolitan county of west Yorkshire. Although these proposals are for county electoral divisions, the principle is exactly the same as that for district wards. In this case, the local government commission has accepted the proposals of the county council, which happens to be Labour-controlled, except that in Bradford it made one or two changes that were proposed by the Bradford city council, in Kirklees it adopted a suggestion of the Kirklees district council, and in Wakefield one suggestion from the Wakefield city council, one from a local Labour party, and one from a local community council. In other words, no proposal was initiated at the instigation of the commission. They all came from other bodies, notably political bodies.
The parliamentary Boundary Commissions are above suspicion based on party bias, but if they have to use building blocks that are susceptible to party bias, it is inevitable that that purity will not be unsullied in some cases. Indeed, it would be quite feasible for local parties to devise ward structures that were designed to lead inevitably to certain parliamentary boundaries. I do not point the finger at any instance of this phenomenon, but in Kirklees one was prevented from suggesting what might have been an ideal parliamentary scheme, incorporated in the recreation of the former Spen Valley constituency, by the fact that a small strip of relatively unpopulated land cut off one ward from the other five, which would together have formed such a new constituency.
The English commissioners record in chapter 4, paragraph 5, that in some constituencies adherence to their settled policy of respecting the integrity of wards in metropolitan counties led to some disparities. A particular example is Crosby, which has over 80,000 electors based on the 1976 electorate. I do not necessarily suggest that the commissioners should have decided to split wards. However, I am convinced that the local government Boundary Commission needs strengthening, partly 206 because of the requirements of local democracy, but also because of the possible implications for parliamentary constituencies.
One or two other relatively minor points deserve comment. Before local government reorganisation, there was an obvious distinction between county and borough constituencies. That distinction no longer applies. The commissioners found that very often they were making decisions on fairly marginal grounds, related to the significance of rural areas in a particular constituency. This matter is important only because the formula for election expenses differs between county and borough constituencies.
The distinction is really an artificial one. In Scotland, the same distinction exists between country and burgh seats. The Scottish commission said that it found this anomalous, and it specifically recommended that the nomenclature be altered. I suggest that we could go further that that, and consider getting rid of the distinction altogether. If it is thought necessary to retain a variable limit for election expenses, surely a fairer system would be to devise a formula relating the limit to the size of the electorate and the area of the constituency in each case.
I also want to mention the rules of procedure at inquiries. The commission states that it is welcome that some informality exists, and that assistant commissioners can run proceedings in the way that they choose. I entirely agree. Rigidity would be a grave disadvantage, because situations vary from one area to another. Nevertheless, some information should be given in advance to those who have submitted evidence as to what the procedure to be followed should be. I know of cases where those who have given evidence have turned up with lawyers prepared to cross-examine others giving evidence, only to discover that cross-examination is not permitted, as it is in inquiries taking place in other areas. Surely some advice needs to be given beforehand in each case.
It is also notable that assistant commissioners follow variable practices in preparing their reports following inquiries. The fact that there is no consistency in the physical format used—for instance, page size—is perhaps not important but it gives the impression of amateurishness. The way in which the reports are laid out also varies greatly and is more unsatisfactory.
One is bound to say that some of the assistant commissioners appear to be better at carrying out their duties than others. That they each carry out only one or two inquiries means that they remain inexperienced and some of their statements are naive in the extreme. That only one assistant commissioner presides in each case means that some quirks or eccentricities are bound to surface and are not always ironed out by the commission. There is a strong case for having three assistant commissioners for each inquiry. If the number of assistant commissioners were not increased there would be the additional benefit that they would sit more often, and gain the experience which is often necessary in dealing with politically motivated persons attempting to pass off political advantage as a community gain. Much greater consistency would almost certainly ensure.
That mention of consistency brings me to the subject of constituency names. In no other area is the lack of consistency so apparent. We may ask, first, whether constituency names are at all important. My answer is an unashamed yes. People need a sense of identity; of place. If that were not important we would no doubt adopt the 207 United States practice and call our constituencies for instance the 14th or 23rd district of Greater London. I do not believe that we would wish to move in that direction. I am afraid that the Boundary Commission made a real pig's ear of some of the constituency names. It made decisions which will cause annoyance and inconvenience for a long time to come.
The failure to apply clear thinking to nomenclature hits one straight away if one reads part of chapter two, paragraph 28, of the report for England. The commission says:We had thought that the names of districts which emerged at the time of local government reorganisation in 1973, would command general acceptance when applied to a constituency which wholly or mainly corresponded with the area of a district. However, we found strong preference in some cases for the perpetuation of the name of the present constituency, even though there were to be changes in its area. We were not disposed to be dogmatic and if a name commended itself to local opinion we were usually prepared to recommend it.Surprise, surprise—the commissioners discovered something that we have all known for a long time, that the names, as well as the existence, of many of the new artificial authorities created in 1972 and brought alive in 1974, are unpopular.
I want to mention one or two of the ludicrous inconsistencies. In the new county of Avon the commission has relied almost exclusively on district names and has frankly taken some quite mad decisions. The practicalities will be nightmarish for the Members of Parliament for the seats concerned, who will for ever be writing back to electors to tell them that they are not their constituents although they live in a district of that name.
I agree with those hon. Members who have said that we need a Speaker's Conference to review the many issues, particularly constituency names, which I believe are important and which have been ignored in a very big way in this review.
Mr. Bruce Milan (Glasgow, Craigton)
In many ways, we have had an interesting although not particularly well attended debate on a matter which is of considerable concern to every hon. Member. I wish to pick out some of the general themes without going too much into the detail. Some of the themes that have featured in hon. Members' speeches are applicable to England, Scotland and Wales, but there are some respects in which the approach of the various Boundary Commissions has been different and in some respects those differences are rather disturbing or perhaps I should say that it is difficult to justify the differences of approach in several different areas.
Naturally, in a debate such as this, a great deal of dissatisfaction has been expressed, particularly about the recommendations of the Boundary Commission for England. However, those will be dealt with in greater detail tomorrow. There has also been some more general dissatisfaction with the procedures, rules and so on of the commission. However, as I said, it is to the general issues that I want to turn.
The first and obvious point to make about the rules is that they are extremely difficult to understand or at least to interpret. In some respects they may even be contradictory. They are not the clearest rules to follow. To some extent, some of the criticism is perhaps a little unfair because we are giving the commissioners difficult rules to interpret.
208 My second point is that the rules are basically the same for all parts of Great Britain—Scotland, Wales and England. There is, of course, particular provision in the rules about the number of seats for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. The provision in the rules about the way in which they should be applied to local authority boundaries is rather different in the Scottish case from that in the English case. Indeed, it is a rather looser expression for Scotland than for England. In Scotland, the commissioners must simply have regard to the boundaries of local authority areas. Rule 4, with regard to England and Wales, is rather more precise. In practice, however, I am not sure that that has made a great deal of difference.
Much of the debate has been taken up with the respective importance of rule 4, which deals with local authority boundaries, and rule 5, which deals with achieving equality of numbers, so far as is practicable, between one constituency and another. I state at once that rule 5, which provides that so far as is practicable. having regard to a number of qualifying considerations, constituencies within respective parts of the United Kingdom should have equality of numbers, should be dominant. It is very difficult to understand why we should have a system of boundary review unless it is principally to reduce the disparities in electorates that tend to build up during the year. Why have all the disturbance that these boundary reviews inevitably create, unless it is to achieve a greater equality of electorate between one constituency and another? Local authority boundaries are not drawn up for the sake of parliamentary convenience. Therefore, to try to fit parliamentary seats into local authority boundaries is in many cases difficult and rather unfair and produces inequitable results.
I believe that if one has to make a choice as to which rule should be dominant, it should be rule 5, which requires the greatest possible equity of numbers between one area and another. Rule 5 should have precedence over rule 4. I understand from what the Law Lords have decided on the legal action on the English boundary recommendations that the legal position is that rule 4 has precedence over rule 5. It is not a question of taking them in tandem and giving equal weight to rule 4 and rule 5—the legal position is that rule 4 has precedence over rule 5.
I do not believe that the rules under which we are operating at present are right. They need adjustment. If the legal position is that rule 4 has precedence over rule 5, we should change the legal position. That can be done only by changing the rules. It cannot be done by giving further guidance to the Boundary Commission, as a number of hon. Members suggested. While hon. Members and, indeed, Ministers can say certain things to commissioners, they cannot tell the commissioners to ignore and contradict what we now understand to be the legal position on the interpretation of the rules. If the House wishes there to be greater equality of votes between constituencies, there needs to be a change in the rules. Certainly, the Opposition take that view.
Another disturbing aspect of the reason for the Law Lords decision is one to which my hon. Friend the Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) drew attention. The Law Lords said that the rules are now so complicated and, in some respects, internally contradictory, that they hardly deserve to be described as rules. They have become guidelines for the Boundary Commissions. That was not intended by the House when the rules were passed in the 1949 Act, and 209 amended in the 1958 Act. Quite apart from the merits of the recent legal action, into which I do not wish to delve this evening, the rules must be examined from that aspect.
If the Boundary Commissions had given greater emphasis to rule 5 rather than to rule 4, the result would have been more equitable than that which we are debating today, and which we shall debate in greater detail later this week. If there had not been such a great dominance of the local authority boundary rule, there would have been a more equitable distribution of constituencies. Therefore, we must examine the rules again.
Another matter that has interested and disturbed me relates to the introductory passages of the three reports for Scotland, England and Wales. Although the commissions were dealing with basically the same rules—and, in some instances, exactly the same rules—they applied different interpretations. Any hon. Member who cares to read all three reports, or at least their introductory passages, will understand that.
I do not wish to discuss the merits of what the total numbers should be in respective countries. That is a matter for Parliament, rather than for Boundary Commission interpretation. As was mentioned by a number of hon. Members today, the English approach to the total numbers has a built-in tendency to increase the numbers at each successive Boundary Commission review. The hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) made that point well. It is partly because of mathematics and the way in which that commission interprets the equality rule in England, and partly because, once the number has been increased, it becomes the base for each successive review. The result is that the implied figure for England of 506 in the 1949 rules will, under the present recommendation, rise from 516 to 523. The Boundary Commission for England said that the figures will continue to increase with each successive review. Whether or not that is the correct interpretation of the rules, it is not the interpretation of either the Welsh or Scottish commissions.
The Welsh approach appears to be pragmatic. The commission did not begin with any preconceived ideas of fancy arithmetic, but waited to find a figure at the end of the day. I do not say that in any disparaging manner. The Scottish approach was to decide in advance what the number would be—which was that it would not be changed at all. The decision was made on general grounds of equity, comparing Scotland with England and Wales. Regardless of the merits of that approach, it is entirely different from the approach of the English commission, which has a ratcheting, increasing effect.
If the English report had been applied in Scotland, there would have been an increase of three seats, not one. One can argue the merits of whether, in equity, that is sensible or desirable. At the moment, I am not arguing the merits of the total numbers. The fact remains that there was a difference of approach between the Scottish commission and the English commission.
The ultimate increase in Scotland of one seat arose because the commission, having decided on one approach at the beginning of its review, had to change its mind in the middle because of arguments that some of us advanced in the Glasgow inquiry where an additional seat was recommended by the assistant commissioner. That extra seat was translated into an additional seat for Scotland.
210 The commission's arguments in favour of an additional seat at the end of the review contradicted its argument for no additional seat at the beginning. I liked the argument at the end rather better than I liked the one at the beginning, but the point is essentially that the three commissions approached total numbers on a different basis. As they were applying the same rules, it is difficult to conclude that all of them must be equally right. I am not opposed to some flexibility, but there are contradictions in the approaches of the three commissions.
There are also contradictions in regard to the interpretation of rule 6, which deals with geographical considerations. The English commission interpreted it to mean that certain areas, for geographical reasons, should have genuinely additional representation. That is another reason for the ratchet approach to increased numbers on each review in England. The Welsh commission, however, decided on two additional seats partly for geographical reasons. It considered the possibility of reducing seats elsewhere but decided against it.
In Scotland, however, the commission took the view that areas such as the Western Isles, where geographical considerations were such that there had to be overrepresentation in numerical terms, would be compensated for by making reductions elsewhere to reach the number of seats that it had decided upon at the beginning of the review. In other words, it talked of a compensatory factor. I objected to the compensatory factor idea because I see nothing in the rules to say that if one gives greater representation to one area for geographical reasons, one must take something off another area. That cannot be a reasonable interpretation of the rule.
However, that is not my basic point. My argument is that the English commission took the view that geographical considerations add to the total number of seats, whereas the Scottish commission felt that geographical considerations involve an adjustment of representation between one part of the country and another. It is difficult to see how both those interpretations of exactly the same rule—rule 6—can possibly be right.
The Scottish commission also seemed to take the view that it was perfectly all right for the major cities to be under-represented. In Glasgow, for example, it argued that the city should have a rather higher average electorate than the electoral quota because the same would happen to Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Dundee. It felt that the four major cities should have a higher electorate than other constituencies.
There is nothing in the rules to say that there should be a general bias towards urban or rural areas, or that there should be a general interpretation of the rules which produces a given result for urban areas on the one hand and rural areas on the other. As far as I am aware, that argument was not used in England or Wales. That is another example of differences of interpretation.
I do not wish to argue which interpretation is correct, but either there is something wrong with the rules—they are not sufficiently precise—or there is something wrong with the procedures of the commissions in that they produce the different interpretations of the rules that I have described. There is a case for the House to re-examine the rules from that point of view, apart from any other consideration.
Several other matters have been raised in this debate that are worth considering, such as enumeration dates, or the dates on which the electoral quotas are decided.
211 I have considerable sympathy with the argument of English hon. Members that it is absurd that the quota should have been decided on a date in 1976. What is interesting is that the Scottish quota was on the basis of the 1978 electorate. The Welsh quota was on the basis of the 1981 electorate. It is odd that hon. Members are deciding those matters simultaneously on the basis of dates that are so different as between one part of the United Kingdom and another. This matter must be examined and it is relevant to whether the commission should take account of movements of population. There is a difference of approach between the commissions. In Wales, the commission's approach was not especially important because the enumeration date was 1981.
As I understand paragraph 23 of the report, the English commission felt that it was "neither required nor empowered"—that is the significant word—to take into account later movements of population. In Scotland, the commission's reasons for its allocation of seats to Glasgow were based largely on the movements of population beyond the enumeration date of 1978. It quoted detailed figures of the 1982 population and tried to justify the number of seats on that basis. There are differences of interpretation and matters that require clarification.
In Glasgow, it was argued strongly that it was improper for the boundary commissioners to go beyond 1978 because that happened to suit our circumstances. We also believe that it was, legally, a better argument. As some of the small Scottish constituencies are occasionally quoted, of the 15 largest electorates in Scotland, 12 are held by Labour Members. It is not true to say that movements in population since the previous Boundary Commission report have been especially advantageous to the Labour party in Scotland. The House must speed up inquiries or do something about the enumeration dates for the electoral quotas.
As to procedures, it is unsatisfactory that there is no consultation before the commission produces its provisional proposals. The problem is that the commission does not wish to be subject to any political bias. Local authority boundary commissions normally consult local authorities, which ultimately means the councillors who will be affected by their recommendations. There is no such consultation with the Parliamentary commissions. That is unfortunate because in some cases daft provisional recommendations get published. Sometimes it is a devil of a job at the inquiries to overturn those foolish recommendations. Much time, effort and energy is wasted on recommendations that should never have been made in the first place. We should consider the procedures from that point of view.
A worse factor is the fact that no reasons are given for the provisional recommendations. In the Scottish procedures—I am not sure how far this applies in England—some reasons were given before the start of the inquiry. That is an absurd way to proceed. One receives the provisional recommendations with no reasons and one makes one's representations about them without knowing the basis on which they are drawn. One is working in the dark. Just before one comes to the inquiry the commission gives inadequate information about why it drew up the proposals in the first place. It would be much more satisfactory if the commission published its reasons along with the provisional recommendations. That way, anyone who wished to make representations would at least be able to answer the commission's case instead of making 212 representations in the dark. It is absurd that we are not given rather more adequate reasons than we are given now when the provisional recommendations are published.
The inquiry in Glasgow was satisfactory, and not only for the fact that the assistant commissioner accepted all our representations. It was a model of courtesy and fairness to all, especially to those who, unlike some hon. Members, are not expert at putting their point of view. In view of what has been said by some hon. Members, guidance should be given to assistant commissioners about how to conduct such inquiries, because in some cases fairness and courtesy have not been as evident as they should have been.
The recommendations have caused considerable dissatisfaction in many areas. That is inevitable in such an exercise. However, the moral of the exercise and the general feeling of today's debate is that, whether individually or collectively we are satisfied with the results, we must reconsider the rules either in a Select Committee or in some other way next Session. The Opposition believe that the inadequacies of the rules relate to the dominance of the local authority boundary rule over the equity rule. That dominance should be reversed and must be our major objective. A revision of the rules is long overdue.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Allan Stewart)
I agree with the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) that it has been a useful. and interesting to have the debate after having considered. the reports of the Northern Ireland commission and, more recently, the report of the Welsh commission, but before we consider the reports from the English and Scottish commissions.
The debate has been illuminating if for no other reason than that the House has had the opportunity to have a debate, not on the detailed recommendations but on the general principles that underline the Boundary Commissions' reviews. It has been open to hon. Members to address the principles upon which the Boundary Commissions work, without regard to the detailed effects on their constituencies.
Hon. Members have generally addressed their remarks to the rules for the redistribution of seats, which are a matter for the House, although the right hon. Member for Craigton and my hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Waller) have also mentioned the method of operation of the commissions, which is a matter primarily for the commissions. Several hon. Members, especially my hon. Friends, spoke about the effect of the English commission's recommendations on their constituencies. My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison) and the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Stoddart) spoke about the implications for Wiltshire. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, Central (Sir A. Grant) spoke about the criticisms of the recommendations for Harrow. The hon. Members for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton) and Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heifer) spoke about Liverpool.
The House will have listened with particular sympathy to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon), who talked about the growth of population there, and to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Darwen (Sir C. Fletcher-Cooke), who spoke with great feeling about the history of the constituency of Darwen.
213 Hon. Members have generally enphasised the importance of the impartiality of the Boundary Commissions and the importance of the fact that they are not only impartial but are seen by the people to be impartial. That is fundamental to the relationship between this House and the electorate.
The hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) made a number of allegations, which have been fully answered by my right hon. Friend and by my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery). Perhaps I could answer him on one particular point, the question of guidance to the English commission from the Home Office—the guidance to which the commission refers on page 8. That guidance consisted in drawing the attention of the commission to a ministerial statement during the Committee stage of the Local Government Act 1972. It was in fulfilment of a commitment given to the House.
On this general point about the appointments to the commission, I cannot resist saying to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton), who alleged that the Scottish Boundary Commission was a body biased in favour of Edinburgh, that the two members of the commission were, of course, appointed by his right hon. Friend the Member for Craigton and I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman might agree with me that Professor Gordon Cameron can hardly be accused of being ignorant of the needs of Glasgow.
Perhaps the most radical suggestion that has been put to the House was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) who suggested a multi-partisan system, and I think there were echoes of that in the speech by the hon. Member for Cathcart. I think that there are enormous problems in such an approach, which would leave to political parties the task of undertaking detailed investigations and painstaking work in order to make the difficult judgments that fall to the independent commissions. I believe that the House generally has taken the view—as it has always done in the past—that it is the essence of the boundary commission system that the commission should be independent and should be seen to be independent.
I come now to the points that hon. Members on both sides of the House have made concerning the rules on redistribution of seats. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) and the hon. Member for Cathcart have in particular raised the question of the relationship between rule 4 and the requirement to produce constituencies with electorates as near the electoral quota as possible—that is, rule 5. My hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough also referred to that.
I can confirm the right hon. Gentleman's point about the ruling in the Court of Appeal, which said:While the achievement of the electoral quota is certainly a very important objective, the framework of the rules of 1949 itself makes it plain that as a matter of general policy rule 5 was to be regarded as subordinate to rule 4, and not vice versa.The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Sparkbrook then went on to say very strongly and firmly that the rule should be amended to give very clear primacy to rule 5. He said that all constituencies should have the same weight, the same representation; that there should be equal representation throughout the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for Goole took the same view.
214 There are bound to be differing views on that proposition, particularly in the very strong way that the right hon. Gentleman put it to the House. It is certainly not the view that his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition took on a previous occasion when he referred to the duty of the House to drawthe proper balance between the requirements of mathematical equality and the requirements of retaining the association between a Member of Parliament and his geographical constituency."—[Official Report, 14 July 1969; Vol. 787, c. 118.]That point was also made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Cranborne) who referred to the tyranny of numbers.
The House will have noted the comments of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) about the consultations that the English commission undertook with the political parties. As he said, the political parties were unanimous in their view that no constituency boundary should cross a London borough boundary, or indeed any county boundary despite the resulting disparities.
The argument so strongly advanced by the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook, that there should be equal representation throughout the United Kingdom, has serious implications for Scotland, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes pointed out. We had to wait for the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton to consider the respective representation of the different countries, and my hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough also took up that theme. Hon. Members will doubtless have seen the article by Alan Watkins in The Observer entitledIt's not fair to the poor English voter".It is perhaps worth putting on record the reasons for the arithmetical over-representation of Scotland in this House. As the Scottish commission made clear, this favourable position was justified on three main grounds. First, like Wales, Scotland is a small nation which should have special treatment vis-a-vis its larger neighbours. Secondly, it has a disproportionate number of inaccessible and sparsely populated areas. Thirdly, in the past there was an absolute decline in electoral population, although that does not apply to the present review.
The hon. Member for Cathcart highlighted the point about sparsity of population in some parts of Scotland and I shall not add to what he said. It is worth putting on record, however, the arguments used by the Scottish commission to increase the number of seats from 71 to 72. Having considered the arithmetic, it initially took the view that there should be 71. It found it necessary, however, to recommend that there be 11 seats in the Glasgow city district and 33 in the Strathclyde region to achieve the closest practicable approximation to the electoral quota for each constituency without breaking rule 4, which requiries regard to be had to local authority boundaries. The commission concluded that it was not appropriate to make compensatory savings elsewhere. The general proposition of the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook about equality of numbers would inevitably have serious consequences for representation in Scotland, as was validly shown in other contributions.
The right hon. Member for Craigton referred to the differences between the commissions. Certainly there are differences in the rules. Rules 1 and 4 are different. Moreover, the commissions are independent and separate bodies.
The point is that the differences in interpretation do not arise out of differences in the rules. I was drawing attention to differences in interpretation of exactly the same rules.
§ Mr. Stewart
I understand completely the point the right hon. Gentleman is making but he will recognise that two of the rules are significantly different and he will also recognise that the commissions are separate and independent bodies.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Runcorn, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Darwen, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes, my hon. Friends the Members for Buckingham, for Honiton and for Eastleigh (Sir D. Price) all spoke on the general theme of the timing of the commission reports in relation to changes in population that have taken place before the date on which the electorates that provide the basis for the reports are formulated.
A number of suggestions have been made by my hon. Friends. My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes suggested a two-year running review. My hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough made a suggestion in the same area. The House should, however, recognise that when the 1954 order was debated, hon. Members took the view that there was too much emphasis on frequent boundary changes and that too frequent changes had deleterious effects. It was agreed then that changes should be made less often than the Speaker's Conference had originally proposed.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Darwen suggested that the Boundary Commission should be full-time and that this would meet the problem identified by a number of my hon. Friends with regard to the delay in the commissions' reports. I am not sure that my hon. Friend's suggestion would solve the problem. The present English review was delayed for a number of reasons. The commission had to interrupt its work to draw the European parliamentary constituencies and it had to await the outcome of legal proceedings against the local government boundary commission. These points should be borne in mind when we talk about delay in conclusions being reached by the commission.
216 A number of hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friends, have pointed to the relationship between the rules and the inherent tendency of the number of seats in the House therefore to increase. My hon. Friends the Members for Eastleigh, for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) and for Brighouse and Spenborough described the ratchet effect which is set out in appendix B of the English commission's report. There is no doubt that there is an inbuilt tendency for the number of seats to increase. A number of my hon. Friends, particularly the hon. Member for Chichester, pointed out the disadvantages of that, although there were counter-arguments put by Opposition Members, including the hon. Member for Swindon and the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy). The House should certainly take heed of the fact that there is a clear inbuilt tendency for the number of seats in the House to rise.
The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook and my hon. Friends the Members for Harrow, Central and Eastleigh referred to the need for the Boundary Commissions to explain their decisions at inquiries. There are counter-arguments to that. The commissions have pointed out that if they publicly argued for their provisional recommendations they might well appear to be biased in their favour and have their motives called into question when they reached their final decisions. Members of the commissions have, therefore, been content to let the provisional recommendations speak for themselves.
If one studies the extensive procedure that the commissions adopt and the meticulous care with which they examine the various arguments put to them, it is absolutely clear that the House is in their debt. In a debate such as this on the working of the commissions, which in effect prescribe the number of our seats and the areas that we represent, almost inevitably we may appear to be interested parties, particularly when the surgery has been so drastic. The immediate aftermath of such an operation is not the best time to decide on procedural changes. On constitutional and electoral matters affecting the House there is a need for consensus. We should not lightly alter accepted, impartial and effective methods, devised through the commissions, of maintaining a proper equality of representation in the House.
§ It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.